THREADING THE NEEDLE
President Obama’s Challenge to Muslim Americans
On Sunday, the president both rejected prejudice and called on Muslim Americans to make a greater show of efforts to protect our country. Good for him.
So did President Barack Obama reassure a nation on edge? Well, no. But is the nation really on edge? As a member of the media I know I’m supposed to say yes, but is it really true? I wonder. This weekend, millions and millions of people went to malls, went to big-box stores, went to cineplexes, went to restaurants, went to bars. How much time did most of these people spend “on edge,” worrying that they were going to be shot to pieces by a terrorist?
Possibly a little more than the previous weekend, but still probably not much. I took my young daughter to dinner Friday. It occurred to me (several times) that she might throw a tantrum because the food wasn’t sliced the right way. It never occurred to me that a terrorist would kill us, and indeed, none did.
But you’re kind of not allowed to say this sort of thing if you’re in the media, because it’s somehow seen as insensitive to the anxieties of the American people, or something. But what if the media are exaggerating those anxieties? We surely are. We turn it into theater. And presidents have to respond to theater. Huge part of the job.
The speech was decent theater. You always have to think of three audiences for a speech like this. Audience one is the ardently pro-Obama audience, who’ll say “The president gave a forceful…” yada yada. Audience two is the ardent Obama haters, who, well, you know what they think.
Audience three is the sliver of folks in the middle, assuming there are such people anymore, who may have tuned in in good faith to see if the president had anything new to say. For them, the speech had only one or two new, non-theater bits. One, he’s going to push to clamp down somewhat on entry for people from countries where visas aren’t needed. He didn’t say exactly how, but that was sorta-kinda new, coming directly out of his mouth. Two, he’s going to make the Dianne Feinstein bill an issue, which calls for no gun sales to people on terror no-fly lists. This is one that he ought to be able to win, even though he probably won’t, but if the National Rifle Association wants to be on the side of arming terrorism suspects, well, let it. A price will one day be paid.
In theater terms, though, there was one new and actually striking part, which came toward the end when he called on Muslims to decry ISIS, or ISIL as he insists on saying. He used the usual liberal language about how most Muslims are great, but he also said that religious fundamentalism is “a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.” At times he sounded like he was even about to utter the words “radical Islam,” which Democrats for some silly reason have decided they shouldn’t use.
This is the first time Obama has issued this challenge to Muslim Americans, or at least the first time he’s done it in such a public way that it will sink in on the collective public mind that the president said it. That’s actually kind of a huge deal. It says to Muslim Americans that the rights you have as Americans have to be earned, fought for. And you know, that’s OK, because every ethnic and religious group outside the Pilgrims has had to do that earning and fighting. They’ve all faced suspicion, and they’ve all proven that they were better than that. Muslim Americans will have to do the same.
They have to, in some way, take all this into their own hands. They do, to some extent, already. But no one knows they do it, and they need to change that. I still don’t know how even the most intense intra-community vigilance would suss out people like this San Bernardino couple, who fooled everyone in their orbit. But I do know that if other Americans had some sense that Muslim Americans as a group were really working to ferret out the radicalism, then this stalemate might be broken.
If anything Obama should have been more emphatic about this. He should now go around to Muslim communities in Detroit and Chicago and the Bay Area and upstate New York and give a speech that tells them: If you want to be treated with less suspicion, then you have to make that happen. That would be real leadership, and a real service. It’s ultimately a humane gesture to make toward a struggling immigrant group, to explain to them in ways they may not have thought about before what American citizenship means. I can’t picture any of the current Republican candidates doing it. Half of them would go in there with handcuffs.
So I don’t believe the country is on edge, and I don’t believe that a president can assuage the fears that the media are demanding that he assuage, because any two fanatical nuts can go out and buy semi-automatic weapons and shoot up a room full of people, and that’s just how it is in America, and I consider any minute of my life spent worrying about that an utterly wasted minute.
But I do believe a president, this president, can take steps to bring Muslim Americans more fully into our culture and society. That doesn’t mean just reading them their rights. It also means reading them their responsibilities. Obama started down that road Sunday night.