Given a choice, most politicians prefer a symbolic fight to a substantive one. To see how, consider the uproar on the right over President Obama’s refusal to use the term ‘radical Islam’ when referring to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Even by the low standards typically set by American politicians, the argument stands out for its inanity.
Both sides have thoroughly dug in, with Republicans accusing the President of naivety or worse and the President seemingly committed to draw (and finally uphold) a red line on what he considers a matter of principle.
For the right, it’s the perfect little tip to a very long spear: they’ve long accused the Democrats of being weak in standing up to the country’s enemies and of being blinded by political correctness. For crying out loud, the argument goes, how can you fight an enemy if you can’t even name it? For the left, too, there are old themes at play: standing up to reductionist labels and championing a more nuanced worldview.
The fact that both sides are right and wrong helps keep the argument going. ‘Radical Islam’ is, of course, a reasonably descriptive term for militants who commit atrocities in the name of Islam. It’s also, undeniably, being used by the right not just because of what it means, but also because of what it connotes: an epic struggle between the Christian West and the Muslim world.
In particular, Marco Rubio has emphasized the us-versus-them narrative: “This is a clash of civilizations…there is no middle ground…either they win or we win.” Sectarianism has found its way into the discussion in other ways: both Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have emphasized that the United States should focus its efforts on taking in Christian – and not Muslim – refugees.
The President is right to challenge that interpretation of the world – an interpretation that distorts much more than it illuminates, has the potential to drive away allies, and plays into the propaganda efforts of the enemy – but he is being stubborn in choosing this particular fight. (And though language is important, the administration has displayed an odd interest in splitting hairs, apparently unable to decide whether to prefer the term ISIS, ISIL, or DAESH – while giving the impression that maybe it matters.)
He’s also handing the GOP a convenient talking point.
With all of that out of the way, it is worth asking a more fundamental question: what are Americans so afraid of?
To hear politicians tell the story, America is facing an existential threat from terrorism. The national media is all too happy to play along. In the pursuit of ratings, news outlets have pretty much given up on the idea that they should provide context: if it can be sensationalized, it will be; if it can be presented so that you can be made to be personally afraid of it, it will be; if they can do a five minute segment about how to keep your family safe from Al Qaeda in Duluth, they will do it.
You should be very afraid, and you should stay tuned until after the commercial break to find out more.
In every way that matters, that contention is absurd. In a given year, more Americans are killed by lightning, cows, and falling furniture than die at the hands of terrorists – to say nothing of vehicle accidents: the number of Americans who die in car accidents annually is equivalent to a major plane going down every day.
Even so, it would be churlish and irresponsible to deny that the risk of terrorism is worth taking seriously. And looking at the fatality of terrorism is probably a bit misleading: terrorism is fundamentally asymmetrical, its power lies in being able to have an impact beyond its immediate effects. But its most threatening impact is its ability to disrupt our political process. The attacks of 9/11 were horrific and a shock, but they did less harm to American interests than the uncontrolled and ill-advised reactions of the Bush Administration that followed.
Terrorists can threaten us and those threats are real, but the power to cause serious harm to the nation lies with us, not with them. That is sound reason to dispense with complacency and to remain outwardly vigilant, but it is also a keen reminder of the importance of guarding against hysteria.
In the end, it isn’t the terrorists who are an existential threat; it’s the terror.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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