Dear President Obama, weapons can’t kill terrorist ideas

     With Christmas lights reflected in the window, President Barack Obama makes an address to the nation in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

    With Christmas lights reflected in the window, President Barack Obama makes an address to the nation in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

    In a Sunday night speech from the Oval Office, President Obama called the deadly San Bernadino, California shooting “an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.”

    There is no doubt the president is right. Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 27-year-old wife Tashfeen Malik, walked into a holiday party at the San Bernadino County Health Department and killed 14 people with weapons they’d stockpiled, apparently in preparation for the attack.

    Before carrying out the shootings, Farook had contact with people from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria, according to federal investigators. Officials said Malik pledged allegiance to an Islamic State leader in a Facebook posting. Both husband and wife died in a police shootout shortly after the attack.

    Though President Obama said there is no evidence to indicate that the attack was directed by terrorists abroad, he tacitly tied their ideology to that of ISIS, saying the couple had embraced “a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.”  

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Obama outlined a four-prong strategy to defeat the terror group. It included direct military action by the U.S.; training and equipping Syrian and Iraqi forces on the ground; working with friends and allies–including Muslims–to defeat ISIS, and; working with the international community to find a political solution to the civil war in Syria.

    It’s a strategy that has been roundly criticized by those seeking the Republican presidential nomination. In some instances, the criticism has ventured toward the ridiculous. I’ve heard candidates say we should kill the families of terrorists. I’ve heard them spout expletives about our need to drop bombs. I’ve heard things, quite frankly, that indicate we have very few candidates who are qualified to run the country.

    Still, I don’t agree completely with our current strategy, because terrorism, to paraphrase the president, is a cancer that has no immediate cure. We can’t control it by restricting the legal flow of guns, because the purveyors of terror aren’t interested in legalities.

    And while some, including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., have encouraged law-abiding citizens to acquire concealed gun carry permits to fight terrorism, that’s not the answer, either. Here’s why: You can kill an individual, but you can’t kill an idea.

    If ideas died with people, America would have won the fight against modern-day terrorism by killing of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. If killing people were the only answer to fighting terrorism, then America would have won the day with the invasion of Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan, or the drone attacks that have killed terror leaders in one strike after another.

    Ending terrorism isn’t just about killing people. It’s about defeating ideas. And if we are truly committed to creating an America that is safe from terrorism, the strategy, in my view, is a simple one: We must stand up for the principles we claim to hold dear.

    If we believe in the cause of freedom, then we must stand for it unabashedly. Not with disingenuous self-interest, but with a true commitment to the ideal.

    That means supporting freedom even when it’s uncomfortable. It means knowing that some countries will not embrace democracy. It means acknowledging that not all Muslims are responsible for the actions of terrorists. It means refusing to succumb to the xenophobia that would have us turn away refugees.  It means realizing that we are not always right.

    We must acknowledge the fact that securing our own economic advancement while paying lip service to the poverty of others does not create a safer world. It creates a more dangerous one.

    Our enemies know this, and they are using it to their advantage.

    In countries where poverty and lack of opportunity crushes the dreams of young people, it’s easy to convince them to die for even a false promise of freedom.

    That cruel reality allows our enemies to recruit the hopeless. The answer, in my view, is clear.

    We must vigorously defend ourselves against terrorism militarily, but we must also seek to win the victory through ideas.

    We win when independence is more than a declaration. We win when freedom rings in the lives of the downtrodden. We win by taking actions that make democracy a reality and not a theory.   

    Perhaps then, instead of watching our enemies convince young people to die for false freedom, America can convince young people to live for true liberty. 

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal