Radical Islamic Terrorism. The Republicans ridiculed President Obama for refusing to say these words, arguing that one can not solve a problem without defining it correctly. Recently, Obama said those words, but only to counter the argument made by the Republicans. Obama said those words had no magic power. He stated he could say, “Radical Islamic Terrorism” and nothing would change. The irony is that Obama did not say those words for a long time because while he knows that words are not magical incantations, he has to admit that words do have power. Words have the power to shape people’s perceptions. Words incite and words pacify.
Obama does not use the phrase because it associates “terrorism” with the Islamic faith. Obama believes that solving the problem of terrorism requires the efforts of people of Islamic faith to convince extremist elements in the culture to adhere to the true tenets of their religion. His Republican opponents believe that there is something inherent about the Islamic faith that produces terrorists, partly motivated by the view that Islam is a false, i.e., nonChristian, religion. They charge Obama with being politically correct, which to them means he intentionally avoids naming something in a natural way to further his liberal agenda.
Obama tried to downplay the significance of the “radical Islamic terrorist” debate. This was unusual since he is not typically the one who avoids using a disputed phase–he is the one who usually advocates for the use of a phrase that becomes the subject of controversy. But, after hearing his opponents repeatedly criticize him for not using the phrase and hence not understanding who ISIS really is, he felt he could no longer ignore the attack. Obama tried to explained why he does not use the phrase. Basically, he did not want to associate the Islamic religion with ISIS’s attacks. Not only would this be unfair, it would also offend people he needed to be allies.
Doing so would be like saying that an attack on an abortion clinic was an act perpetrated by a “radical Christian terrorist.” Many Christian oppose abortion, but no reasonable, thoughtful Christian would advocate for killing the doctors who work at the clinics.
Words are important because they affect perceptions, which help determine how people act. If you think abortion clinic doctors are murdering babies, then you would feel justified looking for ways to stop them. However, you, and other reasoning people, would not purchase a gun or build a bomb to kill the doctors given your other beliefs. Radicals focus their attention on a narrow range of self-reinforcing beliefs and ignore the range of beliefs needed to be weighed when choosing a course of action. Radicals think that doctors murder babies, the police protect killers, the courts won’t listen, stopping baby-killers would save many unborn lives, taking the law into one’s own hands is justified, all Christians oppose abortion, religious laws outweigh state laws, and shooting the doctor is a heroic action. The “radical Christian terrorist” frames belief after belief in ways that support extreme actions. The terrorists do not think about the doctor’s family, the Christian doctrine of thou shalt not kill, the people besides the doctor who might die once the shooting starts, the varied reasons people may have for choosing an abortion, the court rulings in the case, or alternate ways of protest. They get frustrated, probably as much about something in their lives as they do about their lack of power to change things.
Terrorism can’t be stopped by trying to kill everyone who subscribes to a set of beliefs. Killing one terrorist leader along with ten innocents generates ten times as many new terrorists. We have to win the war of words accompanied by actions that are consistent with the proposed definitions and values.
If websites are being used to recruit new terrorists we have to create websites that recruit new pacifists. If the oppressive conditions in a country are spawning terrorism, we have to do something to give the people hope.
There was a time, not long ago, when the problems of a country could be contained within that country, but no more. Information spreads widely and rapidly today. Money moves around the globe just about as quickly. People travel relatively freely. Borders are artificial. New technologies permit the problems faced by countries to be exported and globalization helps ensure that the problems spread.
People everywhere are connected. We’d like to think that we could close our borders and keep out the “bad guys,” but that certainly won’t work today. We are connected to people around the world in ways we never were before. Their problems will become our problems. If we don’t try to address the root causes of oppression, injustice, and poverty, terrorism will spread. Unfortunately, it is easier to tear down than to build up. So, terrorists will continue to be successful in their minds; we can’t stop them tomorrow or the next day. We can only slow them down until we address the root causes.
It takes far more time and effort to help others than it takes others to destroy something we value. We’d prefer an easy, relative risk-free solution, like drones. But, killing with drones (without due process) and targeting innocents makes us the villains in the minds of others. “America” becomes associated with violence, death, and injustice. Rather than having to deal with a few extremists at home and abroad, we have to worry about armies of terrorists abroad, overseas training camps, and sympathizers in our own country. As our country becomes more fractured, we have to worry about religiously inspired terrorists, racially motivated hate groups, anti-gay groups, and political radicals.
Our safety improves when we prove by our words and deeds that extreme negative beliefs are not true. It’s difficult to change the beliefs of radicals, since they perceive things in ways that support their views, but to be effective in the long run, we have to reach the youth and keep the susceptible from being radicalized. People around the world of all faiths, sexual orientations, and political affiliations have to work together to show by their words and actions that love is more powerful than hate.