The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
Some of the "President Obama won’t say the words 'radical Islamic terrorist'" debate gets overheated. The president is right that words don’t matter as much as strategy. If Obama utters the magic words, ISIS isn’t going to spontaneously combust and disappear from the earth.
Yes, what matters is strategy. The problem isn’t what Obama won’t say; the problem is that his strategy for the Middle East (if there is one) has been woefully inadequate. I understand that he inherited Bush’s war, but I expected him not to lose it so spectacularly, ceding the heart of the Middle East to a terror far worse and abandoning people we promised freedom to that menace. We owed the Iraqi people a debt.
That being said, this avoidance of reality is getting absurd. Because now comes word that Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the government would edit Omar Mateen’s pledge to ISIS and religious motivation out of the 911 calls he made during the Pulse mass shooting. "What we’re not going to do is further proclaim this man’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups and further his propaganda," Lynch told NBC. "We are not going to hear him make his assertions of allegiance [to the Islamic State]."
After receiving criticism from top Republican leaders, Lynch eventually did an about-face, and the Justice Department decided to release the transcripts after all, but it’s pretty revealing that she tried to censor them at all.
This was absurd. According to Politico, this is how one line in the initial, government-released Mateen 911 transcript read: "Mateen: I pledge allegiance to [omitted] may God protect him [in Arabic], on behalf of [omitted]."
Yes, that’s your government at work.
The potential analogies here are endless. When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, he jumped on a stage and shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged." This means "Ever thus to tyrants!" Should the government have kept these words from the citizenry so as not to provide a propaganda boost to the Confederacy?
Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt with that same Latin phrase when he was arrested in the Oklahoma City bombing. Should the government have edited that point out of the police reports? Obviously no. They are part of the historical record.
Words do matter. I understand that Lynch was arguing that leaving Mateen’s pledge in the public record would give ISIS a propaganda boost. Her argument was rather like those of some cops years ago that wouldn’t use the names of street gangs in press conferences for fear of glorifying them. That didn’t make the street gangs go away; it just made the public less aware of the problem.
Being honest about motives for problems helps us develop the best solutions to solve the problems (or, as the public, to assess whether our government is doing so). This came from an attorney general who also argued that "our most effective response to terror is compassion, it’s unity and it’s love." Guess what? ISIS’ leaders could care less if we love them – but they certainly do hate us, and everything we stand for.
However, when you put the 911 call censoring debacle together with Obama’s reticence to use the words and his previous comments (such as about the JV team), it smacks of reality avoidance. When combined with an inert and ineffective foreign policy that seems predicated on reaction and withdrawal, it raises the obvious question: Does Obama and his administration truly appreciate the nature of our enemy?
Although I am not against revisiting some gun laws – such as the move to delay gun purchases to people who’ve been investigated for terrorism – it’s also noteworthy that the president wants to solve what may be a terrorist attack by restricting the rights of Americans as his first and prevailing instinct. So that makes what Mateen said relevant, too: It raises questions about the limitations of the Obama response. At least the president did mention ISIS and Mateen’s pledge in a recent radio address. That’s progress.
However, in April, the White House left a reference to "Islamist terrorism" out of a video by French President Francois Hollande when he came to D.C. for a summit, blaming technical problems. There’s clearly a pattern here.
Why the repeated tendency to avoid mentioning our enemy? One could argue it helps the president by shifting focus to his solution (gun control) and away from his failed policies for dealing with ISIS – and if you don’t think they’re failed, then how come ISIS is still tossing gay people off roofs, enslaving women and murdering religious minorities with virtual impunity?
One could also argue that the government deleting the terrorist’s references to ISIS makes it less likely that the FBI’s handling of intelligence about Mateen’s possible terrorist instincts will be the focus of most scrutiny. The government didn’t correctly perceive Mateen as a terrorist threat before the attack and apparently wants us not to know that was at least partly his motive now. Think about it.
Furthermore, if Obama argues that it doesn’t matter if he uses the words radical Islamic terrorist, then why does it matter if we hear that Mateen essentially did?
More importantly, though, Mateen’s 911 calls are part of the historical record, and unlike, say, a bin Laden video gloating about Sept. 11, they are governmental records too. That means they’re also public record.
It’s very troubling for our government to want to censor and sanitize the public record, the historical record. Those records really belong to all of us. The open records laws are the citizen’s best protection against the power of government, yet this attorney general, the leading Democratic presidential candidate (and also our governor) seem woefully unconcerned about living up to open records laws in general.
I think the public and the families have every right to know what Mateen said during the attack to government, unless it would somehow wreck an active investigation (but that’s not the argument they gave for censorship).
Furthermore: How do we know whether Mateen really said what the government says he said if we don’t get to compare it to what he really said? Now, I believe he said what they say he said. I have no reason to doubt it. However, trust but verify, as they say.
It’s true that Mateen’s motive may have been complicated and could have stemmed from confusion over his self-identity, as well as allegiance to ISIS, which doesn’t appear to have directly trained him. He might have had mixed motives. However, here’s why understanding the shooter’s motives do matter: Knowing the cause helps us craft solutions that are directly related to it. If you misunderstand the cause, you can respond in a way that doesn’t directly combat it.
That’s why we need to understand that racism motivated a shooter to massacre people at a black church, and it’s why we need to understand that religion may have motivated a shooter to massacre people in an LGBT nightclub, at least partly. And, yes, obviously, all Muslims are not terrorists. However, some terrorists are motivated by their interpretation of Islam.
Would we have eliminated references to Naziism when discussing Hitler so as to avoid giving Nazis a propaganda boost? Would we have eliminated the fact the Sept. 11 terrorists were affiliated with al-Qaeda from historical record on Sept 11 so as not to give al-Qaeda a propaganda boost?
Of course not. We learn from history. History requires a complete, unsanitized record, or we could be bound to repeat it.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.