Barack Obama seems ready to fight. In his State of the Union address he boasted about “assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” To demonstrate his determination, he will host a conference on the subject on Feb. 18. The White House announcement emphasized that this summit will study strategies for involving “education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders.”
The sounds of Islamists’ teeth chattering can be heard worldwide … or perhaps that’s snickering instead. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned that slovenly and vague language encourages “foolish thoughts.” Fighting terrorism with a conference which obscures the Islamist dimension of much terrorism today is like trying to fight cancer with Band-Aids to avoid saying the C-word out loud. Islamism is an ideology celebrating jihad, seeking an Islamic state, fusing Islamic fundamentalism with Western fascism, as Paul Berman explains in Terror and Liberalism.
The double-think of 2015 continues a longstanding pattern of Obamaniam Orwellianism. In fairness, Obama’s allergy to the “T-word” and the “I-word” is rooted in the bipartisan failure during the 1990s to confront Islamist terrorism systematically. Before 9/11, few Americans were willing to muster the effort required to crush Osama Bin Laden, despite al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks against Americans in Africa and the Middle East. The 9/11 Commission Report would later confirm, “The nation was unprepared,” psychologically, ideologically and politically.
Even after the 9/11 attacks, some Americans resisted bin Laden’s own framing of the assaults as Islam versus the West. In Chicago, Obama, then a 40-year-old state senator, was evacuated from the Thompson Center, the Illinois state government office building, on that awful day. He watched the horrifying images at his law firm’s townhouse. “The essence of this tragedy…” he wrote a week later in the Hyde Park Herald, “derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity.” Obama explained that it “most often… grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.” Filtering reality through the therapeutic culture’s gauzy belief system, Obama reduced Islamism to a psychological shortcoming, while rationalizing a particular form of violence as a logical, if insensitive, response to poverty and illiteracy.
Beyond insulting billions of poor people who never turned violent, Obama’s 2001 reaction raises questions about whether America’s I’m-Ok-You’re OK overly-psychological culture can handle Islamism’s I’m-Ok-Die-Infidel! death cult. Our pluck, our grit, our occasional righteous anger, our absolute sense of right and wrong, has been counseled out of millions of us. One 2013 survey estimated that a third of Americans have sought “professional counseling for mental health issues.” Some estimates run as high as eighty percent of Americans having received some form of psychological counseling during their lifetimes.
Overall, the therapeutic focus on the neurotic self often undermines social solidarity and relativizes perceptions. While the resulting therapeutic culture is more tolerant, forgiving, and sensitive to others, it is also more guilt-ridden, apologetic, and self-loathing. Reinforced by the post-1960s Great American—and Western—Guilt Trip, which emphasizes our own society’s flaws while excusing our enemies’ sins, the fight against absolutist, totalitarian ideologies like Islamism starts looking doomed. We see the results in ++politically correct college campuses where students accept someone waving the ISIS flag but denounce waving the Israeli flag. We see it in an identity politics that allows narratives of victimization to trump traditional liberal commitments to free speech.
As President, Obama has continued obscuring the ideologically-driven, anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Semitic mission of al Qaeda, ISIS, and others. His June 2009 Cairo speech ignored Islamist ideology, lambasted Western “colonialism” and Cold War manipulations, while insisting: “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace.” Five months later, Major Nidal Hasan murdered 13 people at Fort Hood. Although Hasan admitted that the soldiers he killed were “going against the Islamic empire,” Obama’s eulogy avoided triggering words like “terror” and “Islamism.” His Pentagon initially classified the terror attack as “workplace violence.”
Ideological combat requires clear-seeing warriors who distinguish good from evil, not mealy-mouthed social workers who believe everyone and every idea is good. On Christmas Eve, 1943, Franklin Roosevelt promised “to rid” the German people “once and for all of Nazism and Prussian militarism and the fantastic and disastrous notion that they constitute the ‘master race.’” Roosevelt denounced Germany’s “militaristic philosophy,” although, the historian Steven Casey notes, FDR and his speechwriters edited out a repudiation of the German people “as a whole.”
When fighting evil, democracies should express righteous anger without degenerating into bigotry or hatred. Obama’s fear of anti-Islamic demagoguery is understandable and admirable. Hatred perverts the soul of the hater not just the hated. Most Americans have resisted succumbing to mass prejudice. After 9/11 George W. Bush nobly challenged anti-Muslim bigots and denounced the few examples of anti-Muslim violence.
When taken too far, critique of Western weakness parallels the Islamist condemnation of America and the West as spoiled, decadent, self-doubting. Americans in the 1930s and 1940s had similar doubts about their own democracy’s resilience against the totalitarians menacing them.
Then, as now, our adversaries and our worrywarts underestimated liberty’s expansive and fortifying power. “Freedom is the oxygen of the soul,” the great, eye-patched Israeli war hero and peacemaker Moshe Dayan taught. Freedom is the oxygen of the mind and heart too, which is why the West, especially America, remains world headquarters for ingenuity, inventions, and innovation. Totalitarian power is hierarchical, leaden, constraining and static. Democratic power is voluntary, buoyant, empowering, and dynamic.
Freedom’s fall-out risks unhealthy bouts of anarchy, uncertainty, and idiocy. But, as we saw after Pearl Harbor and after 9/11, evil assaults quickly trigger democracy’s irrepressible healing powers. Obama’s challenge—and ours—is to manage and tap our self-critical, democratic, therapeutic culture to correct our mistakes, individually and collectively; and see our enemies clearly. If we can do this, we will uncork our great, cleansing powers boosted by freedom, fury at the terrorists’ destructive nihilism, and the very reasonable fears of what the future would look like if the Islamist totalitarians win.