President Obama knows as well as anybody the power and peril of language. "Don't tell me words don't matter," he said in 2008—as critics called him a better orator than presidential candidate.
Say what you want about his six years in office, Obama has proven himself to be as careful with his words as he is fond of them. Which is why I am not surprised to find the White House tied in knots over how to describe the terrorists who struck in Paris and Australia and Canada and Fort Hood, Texas—not to mention the monsters running the so-called Islamic State.
These are Islamic extremists.
Why doesn't the White House call them that? "It's not just Islamic violent extremism we want to counter," press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday when asked to explain why "Islamic" was omitted from the title of an upcoming Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. "There are other forms."
True enough, but a bit of a dodge. A reasonable person can both embrace the Muslim religion and recognize that some zealots are using their interpretation of it to justify intolerance, bigotry, and murder. Earnest tried to make that point on Tuesday.
"I certainly wouldn't want to be in a position where I'm repeating the justification they have cited that I think is illegitimate. They have invoked Islam to justify their attacks," he told reporters. "I think what I'm trying to do is to describe to you what happened and what they did."
I appreciate the thought process. In fact, it reminds me of how journalists often describe their roles: I think what I'm trying to do is to describe to you what happened and what they did. That is accurate to a point, but any reporter will tell you their job goes beyond transcription; we also provide context and call fouls. We make judgments, some of them harsh.
To not call the attacks Islamic extremism whitewashes from public debate an important detail: These terrorists are invoking a great religion to do evil. It's an uncomfortable fact—but a fact, nonetheless.
The French did not hesitate to declare war on radical Islam. When NBC's Chuck Todd asked Attorney General Eric Holder if the United States was on the same footing, Holder said, "I would say that we are at war with terrorists who commit these heinous acts and who use Islam. They use a corrupted version of Islam to justify their actions."
True, but too careful. The word he left out matters.
As commendable as his intentions may be, Obama is making a mistake not to call terrorists exactly what they are: Islamic extremists. He's not giving Americans the full story about a generational threat. He's not helping Americans distinguish between a religion and those who bastardize it. He's not reminding Muslims that their faith is under siege.
And, finally, Obama's verbal prudence feeds the paranoia of political extremists in the United States who question his patriotism.
Republican pushback on Obama's language can be outlandish. Citing the Benghazi attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas accused Holder two years ago of aiding terrorists and said the administration was infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. "It's very clear to everyone but this administration that radical Islam is at war against us," he said.
Americans deserve a debate over Obama's antiterrorism policies, including domestic spying, drone warfare, and his slow-footed response to ISIS. But to suggest that the president unpatriotic is dangerous and wrong.
While injecting the United States deeper into war against terrorism, Obama has distinguished between the faith and the fanatics. He said in September, "Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not "Islamic." No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state."
Obama's predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, worried about that his self-proclaimed war on terror could be viewed as a religious conflict. "Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. But ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for," Bush said. "And therefore, we must work together to defend ourselves. And by remaining strong and united and tough, we'll prevail."
United and tough.
Obama needs to be reminded that words matter. So do his harshest critics—those who seek to divide this country over the president's choice of words.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.