Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
The problem with extremist rhetoric is that it distracts from substantive issues the public should be debating. When folks on the left or the right make outrageous, offensive comments about their political opponents, the debate turns from policy to personalities very quickly, and along the way important issues get pushed aside. Worse, there are always crazy people out there who will take extremist rhetoric to heart and act on it, often with dire consequences.
For as long as I can remember, abortion opponents have characterized the procedure as “murder,” even though very few of them advocate the typical criminal penalties you’d associate with murder–e.g., the death penalty, or life in prison without the possibility of parole — for doctors who perform abortions or women who get them. Unfortunately, though, men like Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder take that rhetoric quite literally, and people die as a result. Likewise, conservatives accused Bill Clinton of being a war criminal, a rapist, and, yes, a murderer (see Foster, Vince), when in reality they just disliked his policies and thought he was a boor. As to the latter point, they may have been correct, but don’t forget that the Oklahoma City bombing was inspired by right-wing extremism.
Meanwhile, Pres. Obama is reputed to be the most threatened president in U.S. history. During his term in office, we’ve seen increasingly extreme rhetoric, especially from the right, and it’s clearly having an effect on the voting public. Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo recently wrote:
Three in 10 registered American voters believe an armed rebellion might be necessary in the next few years, according to the results of a staggering poll released Wednesday by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind.
The survey, aimed at measuring public attitudes toward gun issues, found that 29 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” An additional five percent were unsure.
Eighteen percent of Democrats said an armed revolt “might be necessary,” as compared to 27 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans. Support levels were similar among males and females but higher among less educated voters.
Forty-four percent of Republican respondents — nearly half — bought into the ultimate extremist sentiment: that things were so bad (implicitly, because Obama!), they may need to take up arms against the government. As stunning as that number is, it’s also pretty alarming that eighteen percent–nearly one-fifth–of Democratic voters felt the same way. So, yes, we have some extremists on our side, too.
Not every person on the far left advocates political violence, of course, but you don’t have to look very hard to find liberals casualy tossing out an incendiary phrase or two. Case in point: A longtime social media acquaintance posted a cartoon showing a future children-of-mass-murderers support group. In the first panel, the son of the Ft. Hood shooter and the daughter of Tamerlan Tsarnaev were commiserating about their fate. In the second panel, who should walk in but … Malia Obama. The obvious point being, Pres. Obama’s a mass murderer!
Smack. My. Damn. Head.
For the record, I’ve said repeatedly that I’m unalterably opposed to the so-called “war on terror” and that the president is wrong to continue to prosecute it, let alone expand it beyond Afghanistan and into countries like Pakistan and Yemen. Although I find the left’s obsession with particular military hardware (Egad, drones!) to be somewhat bizarre, my position is and always has been: End the war yesterday. So, I have some sympathy for those on the left who criticize the president’s war strategy.
But every bad policy decision isn’t the equivalent of murder, even if it results in death. I know that’s a challenging concept, but it’s true. The president believes, in good faith, that in order to protect the country from terrorist attacks he needs to use military force to “defeat” terrorist groups. I disagree. In fact, I disagree vehemently. But he inherited an incredibly complex situation from his predecessor, who had pursued not one but two ill-advised wars and in so doing generated perhaps even greater hostility towards America than existed prior to September 11, 2001.
As for the war in Afghanistan itself, that was an accomplished fact before Pres. Obama took office. While I personally believe he should have gotten us out of that fiasco with the same deliberate speed with which he got us out of Iraq, that was hardly an easy decision to make. No matter what route he chose there, the people of Afghanistan were likely to continue to suffer, either from American military activity or insurgent attacks. There was no simple solution, and while I disagree with the strategy Pres. Obama pursued, I can say this with absolute certainty: I sure am glad that burden never rested on my shoulders.
As far as the president’s decision to expand the war beyond Afghanistan, I acknowledge that that’s more problematic. As I’ve written before, the very idea of an open-ended, borderless war against shadowy organizations loosely affiliated with one another pushes at the very limits of, and likely breaks, recognized laws of warfare. So, again, the right thing to do is to bring the war, however it’s defined and wherever it’s being waged, to a prompt conclusion. Nonetheless, I believe the president is wrestling with a difficult set of problems that are not of his choosing: Al Qaeda and its affiliates are illegal paramilitary organizations that likewise violate the laws of warfare–by intentionally targeting civilians; by refusing to identify themselves as a military force through the use of recognizable uniforms, ranks, insignia, and flags; by hiding amongst civilians and carrying out operations from within civilian populations centers, thereby exposing those civilians to unnecessary harm; and by waging war all over the globe, without any conceivable legal justification.
Obviously, the fact that terrorist organizations violate the laws of warfare in no way justifies our violation of those same laws, but it’s simply not accurate to suggest that the president is acting maliciously or is purposefully targeting innocent people. So as much as I believe he’s wrong on the war on terror and he should end it promptly, I abhor the use of extremist language by his liberal critics, too. The president is not a murderer, and to characterize his mistaken policies as such does nothing to further honest debate on the subject.
If we can get past lobbing rhetorical bombs and engaging in personal attacks, we might be able to get to the heart of the matter, which is this: How should the United States deal with the threat of international terrorism? I believe the answer to that question will almost never involve the use of military force, but we need to do more than identify the things we shouldn’t do. That’s the part of the discussion that gets buried in hyperbole when the president’s critics turn every policy debate into accusations of murder, fascism, tyranny, socialism, communism, Maoism, Nazism, and on and on and on. . . .
[Photo: Pete Souza, White House]