Two years ago, the historian, academic and commentator Juan Cole decried media response to the massacre in the Central African Republic of 24 Muslims by anti-balaka Christian militias. "Whereas Seleka (a coaliton of Muslim clans) is often called extremists in the US press," he noted, "the Christian militias are almost never called 'extremist Christians.'" He explained "while Western press reports dospeak of Christian milita members, on the American side the E-word was little applied. But surely massacring 24 non-combatant people is extreme."
"Racist" has become the R-word among Republicans, determined to deny the existence of such a creature now that America the Beautiful has elected a black president. Similarly, the E-word been has been de facto banned by US politicians, Democrat and Republican, from being applied to acts of Christian terrorism.
Pity that, but if the murderers of 24 people because of their religion deserved- as they did- to be recognized as "extremists," so too, do the murderers of approximately 150 people in Paris, Francis warrant use of the term "extremist." "How did we get to this place," Bill Maher asked Friday night, "where just describing something is demonizing?" (two videos from Real Time, below).
That question looms as even more fundamental, given an exchange in Saturday night's Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
Moderator John Dickerson asked, in his words, whether "the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with radical Islam" as maintained by Marco Rubio. As this portion of the transcript indicates, it was "like pulling teeth," as the old saying goes, to get any of the three Democratic candidates to utter the phrase "radical Islam," and these teeth never were pulled. (O'Malley, with nothing to lose, would have interjected or gone back to the subject if he had a different perspective.)
I don't think we're at war with Islam. I don't think we at war with all Muslims. I think we're at war with jihadists who have--
Just to interrupt, he-- he didn't say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don't--
I-- I think that you can-- you can talk about Islamists who-- clearly are also jihadists. But I think it's-- it-- it's not particularly helpful to make the case that-- Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with that we've gotta reach out to Muslim countries. We've gotta have them be part of our coalition.
If they hear people running for-- president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam-- that was one of the real contributions-- despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, "We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression." And yes, we are at war with those people that I don't want us to be painting with too brand a brush.
The reason I ask is that you gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said that it was important to show-- quote-- respect even for one's enemy. Trying to understand and in so far as psychologically possible empathize with their perspective and point of view. Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?
I think with this kind of barbarism and nihilism-- it's very hard to understand other than the lust for power, the rejection of (UNINTEL), the total disregard for human life-- freedom or any other value that we know and-- respect.
Historically it is important to try to understand your adversary in order to figure out how they are thinking, what they will be doing, how they will react. I-- I plead (?)-- that it's very difficult when you deal with-- ISIS and organizations like that whose-- whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious-- that it doesn't seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power. And that's very difficult to put ourselves in other shoes.
Very quickly, do either of you-- radical Islam, do either of you use that--
I don't think the term is what's important. What is important to understand is we have organizations, whether it is ISIS or Al Qaeda who do believe we should go back several thousand years, we should make women third-class citizens, that we should allow children to be sexually assaulted, that they are a danger to modern society. And that this world with American leadership can and must come together to destroy them. We can do that.
Yes, Senator, it is important, important because words have meaning- if they didn't, you wouldn't be carefully avoiding certain ones. They tell us something important, and very ugly, about Ben Carson that he would compare such things as abortion and the Affordable Care Act to slavery or the Holocaust. It is why Marco Rubio- who has no concrete suggestions for dealing with ISIL and no plans to declare war on it- strategically refers to a "war" with radical Islamists.
It is, additionally, why Hillary Clinton refers to "Jihadists," a term of conveniently shifting interpretation. "Jihad," appearing often in the Koran, means "to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, to perservere" but in the USA is used to mean whatever one wants it to. And so it was that in the Georgetown speech 12 months ago to which Dickerson referred, former Secretary of State Clinton argued
This is what we call Smart Power, using every possible tool…leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand, and insofar as is psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view, helping to define the problems [and] determine a solution, that is what we believe in the 21st century will change the prospect for peace,
Notwithstanding the disinterest of the GOP presidential candidates in understanding ISIL, Islamic terrorists in general, Russia, or virtually anything foreign policy, it is critical to understand the enemy. But "empathize," informs Merriam-Webster, is "to have the same feelings as another person," and empathizing with mass murderers is a bridge, or several bridges, too far.
Republicans have mocked President Obama's avoidance of "Islamic extremist" or "radical Islam" to describe terrorists. But they shouldn't need Frank Luntz to exploit Mrs. Clinton's recommendation that the nation insofar as is psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.