Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Topics: Muslims, Islam, War on Terror, Barack Obama, National security, Terrorism, Counterterrorism, Domestic Terrorism, Islamophobia, Oklahoma City Bombing, Conservatives, Editor's Picks, Politics News
The criticism of President Obama’s speech last week at National Defense University has run the gamut from hyperbolically partisan to utter incoherence to absolutely spot on. There’s no need to rehash the critiques, but there is, I think, a need to flag a significant point that’s been missed about the speech’s entire premise.
One of the reasons the president’s speech was supposed to be big news was because it was hyped as a systemic analysis of America’s entire national security posture. Indeed, the president insisted that his speech was about outlining a “comprehensive strategy (to) significantly reduce the chances of large-scale attacks on the homeland.” Instead, though, he offered up the opposite of a “comprehensive strategy,” providing proposals mostly designed to fight one specific threat, while largely ignoring other known threats.
If that sounds like an overstatement, read the president’s words for yourself. You will find most of the speech focusing on the specific threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, but only a single passing reference to “homegrown extremists” and just three sentences about domestic, non-Muslim terrorism.
The implicit message of such a skewed speech should be obvious: Through omission, the president insinuated that a plan to fight Islamic terrorism in specific is the same thing as a comprehensive plan to fight terrorism in general. In other words, the speech seemed to be a more erudite Obama version of Islamophobes’ favorite aphorism, which glibly (and wrongly) claims “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.”
To know that saying is wildly inaccurate is to simply look at this list (about halfway down the page). Likewise, to know a plan primarily to fight Islamic terrorism is not a “comprehensive” plan to secure America is simply to behold a few data points comparing the size of different threats and, thus, putting the threat of Muslim terrorism in the context of all known threats to national security. Here are a few of those data points:
So, in sum, while fundamentalist Islamic violence is a very real threat to the United States, and while such a serious threat warrants requisite attention from national security agencies, it is one of many such serious threats. Additionally, data from the last decade suggest that though fundamentalist Islamic violence is typically portrayed as the single biggest — or only — menace threatening Americans’ physical security, it is actually a smaller threat to Americans’ physical security compared to other forms of violence that have caused far more death and destruction.
The good news is that according to recent polling, a majority of Americans understand all this. Indeed, as a Fox News survey found, “Voters say homegrown terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (51 percent) pose a greater threat on U.S. soil than Islamic terrorists (26 percent).”
The bad news is that even considering that political reality, and considering the data about different threats, President Obama gave a speech implying that primarily stopping Islamic fundamentalist violence is a “comprehensive strategy” to protect America. That raises a simple question: Why?
One answer may be the president’s misguided belief that he can appease the right.
President Obama no doubt remembers the overwrought conservative backlash to the Department of Homeland Security merely mentioning the threat of non-Muslim terrorism. From that, he knows that the same American right that constantly inveighs against censorship and “political correctness” often promotes a version of such censorship and “political correctness” when it implies that it’s unacceptable to even talk about non-Islamic terrorism. Hence, he knows that to present a truly “comprehensive” national security plan — one that addresses threats in proper proportion and that therefore focuses in part on non-Islamic terrorism — would be to offend the right’s speech police and consequently fuel another such backlash at a time when the conservative movement is already successfully manufacturing scandals out of Benghazi and IRS revelations.
And so maybe to avoid such a backlash and/or to try to assuage the Islamophobic right, the president simply delivered a speech echoing a conservative national security ideology that pretends Muslim terrorism is the singular threat against America.
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate political calculation at all. Perhaps, instead, the speech just showed that in the last decade, conservatives have so succeeded in making the definition of the term “terrorism” synonymous with the term “Muslim” that the president ignores nuance and simply assumes the formula is: comprehensive national security = stopping Islamic violence.
Whatever Obama’s motivation, though, the big problem is that the attendant policy and focus may be as misguided as the rhetoric.
As just one example of that possibility, consider Rania Khalek’s Salon report from a few months ago quoting former Department of Homeland Security officials fretting that the agency is putting a disproportionate amount of its resources into combating Islamic terrorism while ignoring many other threats. In that report, the author of the 2009 DHS report on non-Muslim terrorism “said DHS employed just one analyst to monitor all non-Islamic extremism, down from eight prior to the report’s release,” all while “the department has at least two dozen personnel assigned to analyzing the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism.” Another former DHS official now working in another law enforcement agency recalled a “3-to-1 ratio” of “analysts assessing Islamic extremism versus those covering non-Islamic threats.”
Such a deliberate allocation of resources is obviously dangerous in how it focuses disproportionately on one threat while ignoring others. And here’s the thing: that kind of misallocation is almost certainly happening in other law enforcement and national security agencies. That’s because those resource allocations don’t happen in a vacuum; they are instead the result of an overarching national security strategy like the one outlined in President Obama’s speech.
This, of course, is the biggest consequence of allowing fact-averse ideology — in this case, Islamophobia — to shape national security policymaking. When that happens, America’s national security strategy ends up ignoring concrete data about the totality of the threat we face. That consequently endangers the country — at least until we get a truly “comprehensive strategy” that starts reflecting reality.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. More David Sirota.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)