President Obama’s Speech on Terror


W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night.  Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance.  First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering.  Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder.  My wife and I looked at each other.  Are you fearful, honey?  Neither am I.

President Obama himself made many good points.  Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam.  Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA.  Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people).  And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.

These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious.  But he does.  Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.

Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.

Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame.  Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones.  (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)

President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror.  All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards.  Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less.  Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror.  Not such a good idea, right?

Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office.  As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure.  Wrong.  His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within.  Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent.  “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders.  Liberty was.  And liberty entails risks.

A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost.  (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)

The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values.  He was right to talk about human dignity.  He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear.  Now we as Americans need to live up to those words.  And so does he.



18 thoughts on “President Obama’s Speech on Terror

  1. After some praise you wrote: “Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid.”

    I would suggest that “for what the President left unsaid” he deserves no praise at all for. What was left unsaid is what his real message always is. That is words to charm the American people into believing he is acting in their best interests rather than his neo liberal agenda of continued empire expansion and domestic freedom constriction.
    As an example the only recommendation he had on gun control was an attempt to do an end run around the gun lobby by suggesting that people on the “no fly list” not be allowed to buy guns. As a “constitutional “lawyer he knows that the secret process of this listing, without prior notification, or adjudication has resulted in many people appearing on that list with absolutely no justification and having to go through an arduous process to restore their right to air travel. Even Marco Rubio has taken issue with that recommendation of Obama.Spare us the “praise”.

    • What you say about the “no fly” list is true: the list is faulty. It can be politicized. On the other hand, there are people on that list who truly are known terrorists. Allowing such people to buy guns is absurd. Here I agree with the president: it is a matter of national security.

      • So sorry. Somehow I have lived under the mistaken notion that we lived in a democracy that allowed an individual who is accused of a crime to a fair trial. Now I see that even a staunch supporter of transparency in government is easily swayed by that word (terrorism) , when uttered by a secret body, over someone else’s life that we can forget about “due process”. I stand corrected in my faulty understanding of what to expect of a democracy. Not very “contrary”..

      • As a pro-gun yahoo (see how open-minded I am, look who I’m quoting!) pointed out post-Obama’s speech, if the people on this list are such a menace, why aren’t they in custody rather than simply under surveillance? This goes to the very heart of the matter!! Obama has claimed the right to assassinate any person, anywhere on the globe, with no due process whatsoever for being a “terrorist.” Prisoners are still being held at Gitmo who will never be tried, even in a kangaroo court, because some informant reported them as “terrorists” but there is NO REAL EVIDENCE against them! This so flies in the face of what our nation SUPPOSEDLY stands for that this commentator will remain in a permanent rage over these matters. The chasm between what schoolchildren’s textbooks tell them about the marvels of American democracy and the ugly reality we’re living grows wider by the day. I “enjoyed” the “pleasures” of air travel (one flight was delayed five hours) just last week, so I’m not on the No-Fly List yet. But mark my words: the day is not far off when dissidents will be placed on that list simply for speaking out against this insanity.

      • What is your solution? Are you saying the no-fly list should be scrapped? Are you saying it’s either totally bogus or completely illegal, or both?

        Also, I don’t understand why the right to buy guns is so sacred. Yes, it’s difficult to get your name removed from the no-fly list. But why is it so imperative that people on that list be allowed to buy guns immediately? Can’t they wait to get their gun(s) until their name has been removed from the list?

        Finally, isn’t there a measure of legitimate concern about public safety? Putting a temporary restriction on a person’s ability to buy guns doesn’t mean we’ve become a Gestapo police state. Nor does it place us on a slippery slope that ends in all “dissidents” being disarmed because their names are on the list.

      • There’s an old, old expression: “Sh*t or get off the pot!!” Though I never taught Constitutional Law, in my opinion the current approach to dealing with the “chickens coming home to roost” (if you prefer, call it blowback from the US’s Global War On Islam–though many will deny the latter is the reality) IS illegal under the system of “values” that supposedly governs us at the most fundamental levels. Little matters like the right to be confronted with the supposed evidence against you, the right to a fair and speedy trial, etc. have been trashed in the name of (everyone chant the magic incantation, now!) NATIONAL SECURITY. In a National Security State (see Nazi Germany, as described by Hannah Arendt in “Eichmann In Jerusalem”) ANYTHING the regime does is automatically deemed legal. The way things are going in this nation, with President Trump looming on the horizon, I find it very foolish to mock the idea of dissidents being detained for thought crimes. It’s coming, Professor Astore, it’s coming.

      • I wasn’t mocking anything, Greg. I was suggesting that denying the right to buy guns to people on the “no-fly” list is a sensible course of action. For people on that list who seek to buy guns but who are turned down, they can seek legal recourse to having their names removed from the list.

        Is it so horrible to democracy that their right to buy guns might be delayed for a few weeks or months?

      • Aye, Bill, ’tis a scurvy lot of testy regulars you’ve attracted here to TCP! :-) As a sensible (I know, some folks hold a contrary opinion on that!) and compassionate human being, I am NOT a proponent of proliferating firearms in the hands of the citizenry. I was merely acknowledging the logic of the yahoos who have pointed out the shortcomings of current Federal policies. “Give credit where it’s due.” Until such time as a Supreme Court of the United States can be assembled that will disappoint the NRA, it’s open season on acquiring weapons if you’re not a convicted felon. “Come and get ’em, folks!” (And per NBC Evening News on Dec. 7, a new surge of purchases is in force post-San Bernardino. At least part of this is doubtless triggered by idiots screaming “Obama’s coming to confiscate your guns!”) If you are on a list of “suspected terrorists” but have a completely clean criminal record, you ought to be able to purchase anything that’s legally sold, yes? If the authorities have bona fide evidence to warrant arresting someone, they should lay their cards on the table and act. To point this out is simply to put a spotlight on the idiocy of the status quo. With so much idiocy at large, we need a lot of spotlights.

  2. The current dilemma and problem by our leaders shows a lack of understanding of Islam. Islam has two sects, Sunni and Shiite which are often violent towards each other. Saddam Hussein of Iraq kept it in check. Within Sunni there is an extremist strain of Islam that encompasses countless millions of adherents in a religion of 1.6 billion. This extremist strain regards attacks on countries that are Moslem to be an attack on them as well, a kind of payback becomes their mission. So we have today the extremist element gaining ground throughout the Middle East and South Asia primarily because the United States has destabilized the region through its war on terror. Did the United States stir up a hornet’s nest in Moslem world that only a few were aware of?

    Also hard questions about Islam’s sects need answers: Is it a tolerant religion for Christians and other religious faiths? Do Moslem countries inhibit or limit other religions? The Armenians know that Turkey, a Moslem country, showed only intolerance degenerating into genocide.

    Since the extremist element has its own territory and army it needs to be confronted militarily because it is a threat. So our Iraq War has now necessitated more war.

    Ironically, Turkey and Iraq both have substantial military resources in the region to confront Islamic extremists, but they are unwilling or unable. Now, the magnitude of debacle of the Iraq War is never or rarely reported or discussed on TV news where most people still receive their information. This clearly demonstrates we have a distorted and skewed media reporting through omission in a democracy/republic.

    In conclusion, it shows amateurish and delusional agendas in our foreign policy in the Middle East conducted by those who are ignorant or willfully misdirecting U.S. foreign policy for agendas that are masked in the national interest. George Washington’s Farewell Address is truly a guide post in foreign policy for the nation that has been abandoned because elected officials believe we are an exceptional superpower. George Washington probably would view this notion of “exceptionalism” with not only with doubt but a dangerous precedent, for empires always collapse from hubris and overspending.

    In Greek legend there is a hydra serpent with nine heads and whenever one of its heads was cut off it was replaced by two more. Right now, that hydra-headed monster appears to be many countries. A superpower miscalculated with emotion after 9/11 instead of solid thinking embarking on conquest for solutions only to find it created new monsters. And the fools elected and appointed who embarked on a foreign policy of folly are publicly funded giving speeches for six figures or off to teach at our universities ensuring that failure can be taught.

    • Henry.

      Strategic thinking! Can you box some of it for our elected betters and TV talking heads? This soldier’s solution is to give them the 7th Century paradise they want. No vaccines, no automobiles, no smart phones, no AK’s, no bullets, etc., – Islam in its purest form. Smallpox, tuberculosis, polio (and so on) – with Allah’s blessing – will soon settle things.

  3. In 1942 a popular song ushered in the military draft. It went a bit like this….. “THIS IS THE ARMY MR. JONES,. NO PRIVATE MEALS AND TELEPHONES, YOU HAD YOUR BREAKFAST IN BED BEFORE BUT YOU WON’T HAVE IT THERE ANYMORE.” That war lasted only four years and then we got our breakfast in bed and democracy again and that was it. Col. Astore, in 2015 we are now used to a democracy and breakfast in bed and don’t need secret courts to protect us. We’re not in the army anymore. Fourteen years of trampling on our democracy and world chaos ushered in by Bush and Obama isn’t cutting it.

  4. Heard in passing recently

    On the day that Edward Bernays sold his insights to munitions makers ever-eager for easy profits, to imperialist corporations seeking new markets to dominate, and unscrupulous politicians at the beck and call of the former two, we began the transformation from a once proud republic into just another decadent empire.
    Via yellow journalism, early films, and pioneering radio the above unholy triad invaded and colonized the minds of millions of Americans and hijacked through tribal, jingoistic appeals the public’s common sense, its decency, its humanity, and its decision-making centers. Therein lies the value of manipulative propaganda.
    Over the decades, the above interest groups, collectively known as the 1%, have merely refined their techniques, and in addition to (or rather with the assistance of) the above media have employed public and economic policy to implement a worldview, a narrative where all is good when “we, the People” (note how via language they’ve _hijacked us_ into appearing to be the main actor/decision-makers of their follies!) do it as “it spreads benevolent democracy and freedom” abroad… Ah, the national fugue state!
    We have a lot of bad/false history to unlearn, a lot of embedded Bernaysian narratives to cast out and plain old Pavlovian conditioning to acknowledge and overcome.
    Those who don’t will continue to embrace, and defend, the suicidal jingoistic narrative, docilely line-up at recruitment stations, don a uniform and proceed to go to foreign lands to kill and die…

    • Indubitably. The mass media, especially when electronic means of propaganda dispersal (radio, then TV, then the Internet) became available, making “the morning newspaper” less and less relevant (or profitable for the owners), have been absolutely crucial to the dumbing down (where is H.L. Mencken when we really need him?) and Pavlovian conditioning of American society. [I won’t get into movies, of which I am an ardent student and lover.] Thus the importance of the “view [video] screen” in Orwell’s “1984,” where it was a two-way operation of course, to the benefit of the Established Order’s obsessive surveillance. Hmmm, obsessive surveillance. Sounds pretty damned contemporary, doesn’t it? Coming soon: The Department of Pre-Crime!! Coming events cast their foreshadows (I have no idea who originated that saying, but I’ll drink a toast to that person any time).

  5. Pingback: American culture’s long, passionate relationship with violence | The Contrary Perspective

  6. That the event in San Bernardino occurred immediately after the Russian MoD media briefing which rocked the world with long-term, “industrial-scale” Turkish collusion in ISIS oil-smuggling was not coincidence.

  7. Pingback: W.J. Astore: President Obama’s Speech on Terror | Vox Populi

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