By David K. Shipler
Perhaps the most salient element in President Obama’s speech on national security last week was his attempt to begin weaning the United States from its post-9/11 mindset. If he pursues the effort and revises policy accordingly, he might help the country move away from fear and back toward the constitutional principles that have been sacrificed unnecessarily. This would end an era that is begging to be left behind.
But his record has not been encouraging, and the environment he faces is not helpful. The problem is a mixture of reality and beliefs. Fear has to abate, but it won’t when real terrorism maims and kills at a Boston Marathon, or when the word “terrorism” is applied too broadly, as Republicans and some conservative pundits demand. Hardly anyone is comforted to learn, as Obama explained, that the threats now come from atomized al-Qaeda offshoots and radicalized individuals, rather than by centralized direction.
Yes, as he noted, that looks more like the baseline of terrorism the world has endured since long before 9/11. But it is not enough for Obama to say so. As he may have learned from earlier attempts to change emotional dynamics through speechmaking, actions speak louder than words. His well-crafted 2009 Cairo speech extending an open hand to the Muslim world was not followed by intensive, inventive policy. Four years later, on the other hand, his recent address in Jerusalem on Israeli-Palestinian peace is being followed by Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy—a good effort whose outcome is not yet clear.
So let’s see if Obama follows his words on national security. He might consider how his administration’s behavior contributes to the problem of belief—namely, the public’s belief that we are still in the war whose end he now wishes to declare.