Obama: Terrorism is 'real' but we must 'reject discrimination'

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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News outlets are focusing on President Obama’s “tough talk” on terrorism during his Sunday night Oval Office speech.

“Obama Says of Terrorist Threat, ‘We Will Overcome It’” read a New York Times headline. “Obama: 'This was an act of terrorism’” from CNN

The media, politicians and many everyday Americans wanted to see the president “show strength” in the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino. And in the first part of his speech, he did just that (or didn’t at all, depending on your politics). 

But to an equal, if even greater degree, the president focused on calming nerves and not jumping to conclusions as a country — witch-hunt style — when it comes to the reality of fear surrounding Islam, ISIS and terrorism.  

Obama said: “Here’s what I want you to know:  The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.  We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.  Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear.  That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for.  Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.”

He outlined the country’s military strategy: one, hunt down terrorists “in any country where it is necessary,” foremost in Iraq and Syria, where “airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure;” two, provide training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting against ISIS on the ground; three, work with allies to “disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters;” four, establish a process and timeline to end the Syrian war and calm the regional chaos.

He reminded that the San Bernardino shooting was as much an instance of gun violence as it was an "act of terrorism." Congress should “act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun,” he said. Congress should “make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.”

He also said the country should adopt stronger screen policies for those who come to America without a visa, and that Congress should finally vote “to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”

None of this “[requires] us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil,” the president said. 

Then he pivoted.

“Here’s what else we cannot do,” he said. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.  That, too, is what groups like ISIL want.  ISIL does not speak for Islam.  They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world -- including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim.  If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.”

He continued:

That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.  This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.  Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity. 

But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans -- of every faith -- to reject discrimination.  It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.  It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently.  Because when we travel down that road, we lose.  That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.  Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes -- and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country.  We have to remember that. 
My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.  We were founded upon a belief in human dignity -- that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law. 
Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future Presidents must take to keep our country safe, let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear; that we have always met challenges -- whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks -- by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people.  So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt America will prevail.  

Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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