President Barack Obama Sunday night addressed a nation fearful for its safety, and while he didn’t offer much new policy, he exhibited, wisely, a stronger tone on the terrorism we’re confronting and the responsibility of Muslim leaders here and abroad to denounce and help stop it.
Recent deadly attacks in California and Paris and against a Russian jetliner have many Americans wondering how they can feel safe. They’re demanding that the government find a way to end the violence. In San Bernardino, an ambush by a heavily armed couple under the sway of Islamic extremism killed 14. In Paris, Muslim terrorists launched simultaneous attacks last month that killed 130 people. In midair, an Islamic State bomb destroyed a Russian plane on Oct. 31, killing 224.
But Obama also addressed a nation where many are anxious that the reaction to this violence could be an overreaction in which liberties are confiscated and hatreds brandished.
He outlined the plan by which we are trying to stop the Islamic State — killing its leaders, cutting off supplies and funding, working with other nations and seeking to improve government in Iraq and Syria. And he outlined commonsense laws we certainly should pass: stopping people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns, properly screening those coming here without visas and limiting sales of powerful assault weapons.
The attempt to find the proper balance between caution and liberty, open-mindedness and eyes-wide-open realism began on Sept. 11, 2001. That balancing act has been further complicated as our fears of attacks by organized Muslim extremists from abroad have been joined by worries about individuals motivated by solitary madness or self-radicalization here at home. As Obama pointed out, the Internet allows a new level and ease of worldwide recruitment.
How do we balance the right to own guns for security and recreation while keeping weapons away from dangerous people? How do we stop foreign terrorists while not causing so much collateral damage in other nations that we spawn new terrorists? How do we stop plots in our cities and neighborhoods while letting law-abiding Americans live unmolested? How do we balance the safety of our military members with the importance of their mission?
And how do we avoid judging and fearing the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceable people, while looking out for the tiny minority bent on our destruction?
The beliefs we embrace and act on are as important as the bills we pass. If we turn on each other because we fear “the other,” we deny the special nature of the United States as a place where all cultures come together for freedom, safety and prosperity. And if we turn on each other, we will no longer need to fear those who would terrorize us.
Because, as the president rightly pointed out, we’ll be doing their work for them.