Within a day of the gruesome attack on a British soldier in London last week, Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement to the people of Great Britain. In it, he stressed three main points: "First, this country will be absolutely resolute in its stand against violent extremism and terror. We will never give in to terror – or terrorism – in any of its forms." Second, not only was the attack not just an attack on Britain, but it "was also a betrayal of Islam – and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act," he said. And third, he quoted the brave woman who confronted the terrorist, with the bloody meat cleaver still in his hand, claiming he wanted to start a war in London. She replied: "You're going to lose. It's only you versus many."
"She spoke for us all," Cameron said. I don't think he was just talking about Londoners. Cameron went on to say that terrorists may try to divide us, but really, shocking acts of violence only serve to bring people together. The woman who had the courage to challenge the terrorist was only one example of that; he went on to salute the police and security forces on the front lines of fighting terrorism. It wasn't until the end of his remarks that Cameron mentioned the investigation and the many unanswered questions, to which he promised he'd find answers.
President Obama could take a page from David Cameron's book.
Every time there's a terrorist attack against the United States, Obama makes some sort of initial statement. None of them has been very good.
Obama usually starts by saying that we're trying to find out the facts. For example, in his statement the day of the Boston marathon bombing, by the sixth sentence, he said, "We don't yet have all the answers," and went on to talk about the work being done by state and local authorities. Then he went back to we-don't-know-what-this-is-yet: "We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn't jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. But make no mistake – we will get to the bottom of this."
Within days of the Benghazi attack, the president said, "I don't want to speak to something until we have all the information." When a known jihadist massacred his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, the president said, "We don't yet know all the details at this moment; we will share them as we get them" about this "horrific outburst of violence." Maybe it's the law professor in him, or maybe he's just an unusually cautious man, but to lead with "we'll get to the bottom of this" isn't a strong message. I worked for George H.W. Bush, the president most known for saying "it wouldn't be prudent, not at this juncture," and even I think this is getting ridiculous.
But Obama's got a bigger problem than just being overly cautious. He goes out of his way not to label what are obviously terrorist attacks as "terrorist" or "terrorism." True, he did denounce "acts of terror" after Benghazi, but he made clear that he wasn't sure this was one of them. In his written statements and Rose Garden remarks that day, he instead called it an "outrageous attack," "senseless violence," and "a terrible act." Here's a transcript from the day after, September 12, from an interview by CBS correspondent Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes":
Kroft: "Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?"
Obama: "Well, it's too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other."
Obama did use the word "terrorist" to describe the attempted car-bombing of Times Square and the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight by the so-called underwear bomber. He did so only after three and four days of White House silence and only after the "folks" – both al-Qaida operatives – had been caught.
Some argue that the President is careful not to use the word "terrorist" because it's a loaded term – one friend argued to me that it's akin to calling someone "racist" – and that he's drawing a contrast with his predecessor, whom Obama thinks was too cavalier in using the word. Obama may love nuanced rhetoric, but it sounds like he's unwilling immediately and unequivocally to denounce the killing of innocent Americans by terrorists.
There's a pattern emerging over the last five years, one which makes the president look like he's unwilling to call it like he sees it – or as we all see it. Common sense tells most people that a bomb designed to kill and maim scores of innocent people at the Boston Marathon is a terrorist act. So is a car bomb ready to be detonated in Times Square. So is a pre-planned attack and murder of our ambassador on 9/11. So is a bomb hidden in someone's pants on a commercial airliner. So is a mass shooting of our soldiers on a domestic Army base.
These are not crimes committed by jealous lovers or deranged mental patients. While we may not know the motivation – whether a political, racial or extremist agenda – or even the identity of those responsible at the time of the attack, clearly these are premeditated acts of violence designed to cause terror in innocent people. That's terrorism, and it's unfair to the victims and their families not to disavow it. As Prime Minister Cameron put it, "We will defeat violent extremism by standing together … and above all by challenging the poisonous narrative of extremism on which this violence feeds." It's time for Obama to start challenging that narrative.
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