Gene Lyons: Whatever happened to home of the brave?

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So here’s my question: What ever happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave? A gang of French citizens resident in Belgium commits a terrorist atrocity in Paris, and it’s somehow President Obama’s fault.

Americans didn’t used to freak out this way. The Paris attacks appear to have thrown much of the nation into the kind of panic we haven’t seen since . . . well, since the great Ebola crisis of 2014, when many of the same people were bleating like goats and predicting a deadly epidemic that would kill us all in our beds.

That was Obama’s fault too, remember? By failing to block nonexistent direct airline flights to Liberia, he’d left the U.S. vulnerable to contagion. Or something.


Because the whole world is a TV show, and the president of the United States is in charge of the script. Unless the president is named Bush, of course, in which case it’s somebody else’s fault.

Probably the French, actually. Remember “Freedom Fries”?

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin delivered a memorable address to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 warning that destabilizing Iraq could lead to bloody chaos. He was greeted with scorn, derision and accusations of cowardice.

Truck stop vending machines even sold “Freedom Ticklers.”

He was absolutely correct.

Partisanship aside, however, Obama’s reaction to the Parisian tragedy definitely hasn’t been his finest hour. Instead of projecting the confidence and reassurance Americans needed, the president wrong-footed himself with ill-advised gibes at Republican presidential candidates.

At a press conference in the Philippines, the president mocked GOP critics:

“These are the same folks,” he said, “oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about 3-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”

Nor to me. Even so, Obama would be well advised to leave the satire to us professional smart-alecks. Sarcasm is always resented, often misunderstood. Possibly he was jetlagged; he looked exhausted.

Even so, a rattled public needed firm leadership, not partisan taunts.

There’s a time and a place. Last week wasn’t it.

True, the president’s remarks were otherwise unexceptional, if uninspired. He said that he understood “the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened. . . . But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.”

Obama’s manner, however, failed to convey that he did understand. He’d have been better served acknowledging that people’s worries about Syrian refugees aren’t entirely irrational. These things must be explained. That one of the Paris suicide bombers carried a forged Syrian passport was by no means accidental.

Ragged thousands fleeing ISIS’s “caliphate” are the worst possible advertisement for its dystopian regime. By signaling that some in the refugee stream could be Trojan horse terrorists, ISIS seeks to sow fear and discord in the West; also to expose French (and American) religious tolerance as a sham. They want refugees to feel that they have nowhere safe to go.

Otherwise, fake refugees are about the least efficient means imaginable of infiltrating the west. As the president pointed out, upwards of 18 to 24 months of rigorous vetting are required for admission into the United States. Like the 9/11 terrorists, most of the French killers could have entered the U.S. on tourist visas had that been their intention.

Very much like George W. Bush, Obama warned that “ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, (then) that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.”

Under the circumstances, the kind of religious bigotry endorsed by Donald Trump and the rest should be seen as more than counterproductive. It’s downright unpatriotic; a rejection of core American values at a time when they’ve rarely been more necessary to the common defense.

Even in an immediately practical sense, Hillary Clinton recently pointed out that to prevail against ISIS, “we need an immediate intelligence surge . . . including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East.”

Stigmatize Muslims as potential traitors, and such expertise is harder to come by.

Sad to say, many Republicans appear to have chosen the real enemy seven years ago: President Obama himself. That’s Trump’s audience, and Obama gains nothing by lowering himself to that level.


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