This morning, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest made the rounds of television news programs, he went through various contortions to avoid describing the Charlie Hebdo assault as a terrorist attack. On CNN, he said that the murders are under investigation, and “if” they were a terrorist attack the administration would condemn it in the strongest terms:
On MSNBC, Earnest praised Islam as a “peaceful religion” and said the Paris attack is “still under investigation. We don’t know exactly what happened yet. It is still not clear who is responsible and what their motivations were.”
This struck pretty much everyone as weird. Did Earnest think it might turn out to be a robbery? But, while Earnest may be a goof, he is a goof with instructions. His reluctance to call terrorism by its proper name represents Obama administration policy. But why?
In the case of Benghazi, just two months before the 2012 election, Obama’s motivation was obvious. He was claiming victory over al Qaeda, and if the murder of America’s ambassador was orchestrated by al Qaeda members or supporters, informed by sophisticated intelligence and armed with mortars, his campaign would take a hit. But the issue evidently is broader. Andrew McCarthy takes a stab at explaining why the Obama administration is so reluctant to acknowledge terrorism where it so plainly exists:
Under Obama, the purge has extended to the word “terrorism” itself. It is to be avoided because “terrorism” has been so frequently uttered in conjunction with “Islam” that a causal connection might be inferred.
You don’t say! …
[D]rawing a direct connection between terrorism and Islam needlessly provokes and potentially alienates Muslims – because, you know, if Muslims commit violence, it simply must be because of something we’ve done; it couldn’t possibly be that they are following a doctrine that instructs them to make war on non-Muslims.
So, from the premise that (a) terrorism is unrelated to Islam, Obama reasons that (b) groups that self-identify as Muslims are really just “violent extremists” because they do not – they cannot – represent the true Islam (so don’t you dare call them “jihadists”). Since (c) only violent extremists commit terrorism, we must therefore (d) resist describing any mass-murder act as “terrorism” unless and until it has been linked to a “violent extremist” group that we already recognize as such (e.g., al Qaeda, ISIS). Consequently, (e) if we lack the evidence to link the mass-murder attack to one of these violent extremist groups, we must deny that the act is terrorism and (f) refer to it instead as “workplace violence,” “lone-wolf attack,” “militant extremism,” or some such. Oh … and be careful with “extremism” – after all, someone might ask what exactly the militants are being extreme about.
Well, maybe. It all seems rather tortured to me. But something is obviously going on here. After Earnest was widely ridiculed for refusing to use the T-word on one news show after another, the White House put out a statement under President Obama’s name that unequivocally denounced the Paris attack as terrorist. The White House understands the issue, but as a first line of defense it will take the position that any act of Islamic terror is, or might well be, something else.
My own guess is that the administration’s thought process is about as complicated as the cogitations of a paramecium. They know that Americans are very sensitive to Islamic terrorism, but don’t care much about murders in Paris or other faraway places. So the story line that things are going swimmingly in the Age of Obama is best served if there is no terrorism, anywhere. That, therefore, is their default position, and, dumb as it sounds, it sometimes seems to work. I think it probably is as simple as that.