In a rare Oval Office address last night, President Barack Obama explained what he is doing to keep America safe from terrorist attacks and defeat the Islamic State abroad — including coalition air strikes, training and equipment for Iraqi and Syrian troops, seeking an end to the conflict in Syria. At home: stronger barriers against terrorists entering the country, and measures to prevent them from getting the weapons that might further their work.
The president called the Islamic State a group of "thugs and killers," who are "part of a cult of death." He labeled the spread of extremist ideology "a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse."
But the president was even more emphatic on what we cannot do: discriminate against Muslim Americans who aren't tainted by a radical few. "When we travel down that road, we lose," he said — the road of religious tests for refugees and watchlists of mosques.
Channeling his inner Franklin Roosevelt — the idealistic one, not the one who sent Japanese Americans to internment camps — he added that, "Freedom is more powerful than fear."
The result of fear
The deadly attacks in Paris. The downing of a Russian plane. The Islamic State-inspired shootings in San Bernardino, coming on the heels of other American mass shootings inspired by other ideologies.
These are fearful events, and they have inspired fearful responses, exemplified by the vague premonitions of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump: "something bad is happening," he said last week.
Which in reality is a specific fear, as demonstrated by Liberty University president Jerry Farwell Jr., who on Friday called for more people to carry concealed weapons to stop the next shooter: "Then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed us," he said at a convocation ceremony.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called this the worst period of Islamophobia since after Sept. 11.
What are American values?
Divisiveness and xenophobia are not new currents in American history.
As always, they are contrary to the values of equality and opportunity we like to tout. Another argument for treating Muslim citizens like citizens — it keeps us safer. Last night, Obama made the claim that another drawn-out ground war in the Middle East would only create the conditions of mayhem for groups like the Islamic State to flourish anew. Poor treatment of Muslims here at home is pretty good propaganda for people looking to denigrate America out of earshot.
And in a land of easily accessible weapons and boundary-less lines of communication to radicalizers abroad, the best defense against lone-wolf terrorists will be the local community unit. Rather than feeling supported by their fellow Americans, these communities are feeling under threat.
In New York
It was this fear that Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed on Friday in remarks at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, where he spoke of a "deep partnership" with the community, a strengthened bond. The mayor spoke of small businesses and speed bumps, but also of the 900 Muslims serving in the police department, a police department eager to defend against hate crimes.
Reiterating his theme of maintaining an inclusive city, he called the city "stronger" because of its Muslim community, which is "an ally in the fight against terror."
Strange to think that straightforward-seeming comments like these need to be reiterated. But in today's climate they can't be repeated often enough.
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