Magazine | July 11, 2016, Issue

Sins of Omission

For nearly eight years, conservatives have inveighed against the liberal quest to euphemize Islamic terrorism out of existence. The War on Terror was whitewashed into “overseas contingency operations” and American strikes were dubbed “kinetic military operations.” Former Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano abracadabra’d 9/11-style terror attacks into “man-caused disasters.” The Fort Hood shooting was bureaucratized into “workplace violence.” When we evacuated our embassy in Yemen, it was merely a “staff reduction.”

Over the years, I have launched a fusillade of one-liners mocking this linguistic legerdemain: “Release the quadrupeds of overseas contingency operations” and all that. But at its core this is not a joking matter. President Obama’s effort to win — or rather “win” — bloody wars by papering over them with bloodless verbiage is a significant threat to national security. If a rattlesnake is in your backyard, calling it a tuba will not erase the threat. A man-caused disaster by another name still sends Americans to the morgue.

In fairness to Barack Obama, he has done more than play word games, just not much more. The man who famously said “Don’t tell me words don’t matter” has yoked himself to the importance of words and the narratives they form. Because he wants to be remembered for ending wars, he needs to talk away evidence that they’re not over and avoid adding plot points to the story that they’re ongoing. Thus his fondness for claiming that more Americans die from bathtub accidents than from terror attacks. See? Terrorism is no big deal. Lighten up, Americans.

Similarly, because Obama is a man of the Left, he feels compelled to find some reason to blame America for its woes or at least lecture us about our undeserved self-regard. At a prayer breakfast, he insisted that we get off our “high horse” about Islamic terror because there was Christian terror during the Crusades roughly a millennium ago. The attack on our compound in Benghazi wasn’t a coordinated act of terror on the anniversary of 9/11; it was the understandable spontaneous response of Muslims outraged by an offensive video.

This is also why he refused to utter certain taboo words. “There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islamic terror,’” Obama fumed recently. If you scratch beneath his pique with Donald Trump for (rightly) criticizing him on this point, you’ll quickly find that Obama’s whole argument for not saying the words rests on magical faith in the power of words: If we call something what it is — Islamic terrorism — we will conjure more of it. Thus his incessant claims that the Islamic State “is not Islamic.” He prefers to call it a “radical nihilistic organization” — which sounds a bit like the philosophy department at Brown. The Islamist attacks on a Paris kosher restaurant, targeting Jews specifically, amounted to nothing more than “random violence.”

In other words, if you don’t have anything nice to say about jihadists, don’t say anything at all, for the jihadists are an army of Voldemorts and Must Not Be Named.

I honestly believed, with mere months left in Obama’s administration, that we had hit an asininity plateau in these matters. The president wasn’t going to change, of course. But how could things get worse?

Well, if Obama’s years in office have taught us anything it is that things can always get worse. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, the Justice Department released the transcripts of Omar Mateen’s phone calls with police negotiators. But the DOJ decided that any reference to ISIS or jihad or even Allah had to be excised from the transcripts. So: “I pledge allegiance to [omitted] may God protect him [in Arabic], on behalf of [omitted].”

No doubt the administration hoped that the terrorist had blamed Guantanamo for his rampage. Or, at the very least, he could have ranted about how terrible gay marriage is. Instead the Islamic terrorist said Islamic-terroristy things.

The mangling of language was already more Orwellian than should be allowed in a serious country. But apparently it wasn’t Orwellian enough for the Obama administration. And so they dragged out the Memory Hole. I suppose we should have seen this coming. If the president can’t name names, it’s only fair that the terrorists be prevented from doing so too. Shortly before this article went to press, the administration reversed course and released the unexpurgated transcripts, but only after unwavering and relentless criticism. The administration made it very clear that it thinks language remains the front line.

No doubt soon enough we will be launching overseas contingency operations and kinetic military operations against [omitted]. We will be told that the great struggle in Syria between Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS is a contest between [redacted] and [omitted]. Shall we omit them on the beaches and redact them in the streets?

There’s reason to believe that this sort of insanity is why Mateen was able to murder 49 people in the first place. Numerous people followed the official guidance “If you see something, say something” and called the FBI to warn them that Mateen loved to talk about mass murder in the name of [omitted].

“At the end of ten months the investigation was closed with no further action,” Fox’s Catherine Herridge reported. The FBI “took Mateen’s statements” as “trying to taunt his coworkers because he thought he was being marginalized because of his [omitted].”

It seems that even taking the [omitted] at their word is now offensive to [omitted].

Don’t tell me words don’t matter.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


Accentuate the Negative Ramesh Ponnuru addresses a question that is probably not going to go away after this election, namely: What do you do when you decide you have to vote ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Now that Garrison Keillor is retired, he will probably spend most of his time propounding cranky political opinions and telling long, dreary stories. ‐ Since clinching the GOP nomination, Donald ...
Politics & Policy


FIREBIRD The Phan Rang fields first heard about my autumn birth from helicopters hovering over Vietnam. My father, nicely hidden from a hostile bomb, was told through rasping speakers, on a crisping earth. That news, ...

Most Popular


It’s Time for Colin Kaepernick to Move On

Colin Kaepernick. Remember him? Below-average quarterback. Above-average poseur. Not “activist,” not really. Activists actually say stuff. Kaepernick almost never says anything. He’s like the Queen or most popes — you have to read the deep-background musings of supposed members of his inner circle to get ... Read More

Trump and the Black Vote

"Donald Trump is a racist, white supremacist, white nationalist. So are his supporters." Some version of that refrain is heard almost hourly somewhere in mainstream media. Democratic politicians seem to proclaim it more often than that. Listening only to the Left, you'd conclude that more than half a ... Read More

The Age of Miscalculation

On August 7, 1998, more than 200 people were killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Americans learned three names most of them never had heard before: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda. On August 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered a ... Read More