Terrified of Speaking About Terror

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: Feb 20, 2009 11:30 AM
Terrified of Speaking About Terror

Eric Holder, the new U.S. attorney general, says we're cowards. He's right, but his reasons are all wrong.

In a recent speech marking Black History Month, Holder said, "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial."

Holder really should start listening more. We gab about race all the time -- mostly debating supposed controversies ginned up by self-appointed "civil-rights leaders" such as Al Sharpton. I stopped taking Sharpton seriously somewhere between him refusing to apologize for his role in the Tawana Brawley hoax and the deaths at Freddy's Fashion Mart. We'd be better off if everyone followed my lead on that point.

As it happens, Holder's speech came a day after I sat in front of a young black man who liberally peppered a 15-minute phone conversation with the n-word. Five minutes into the young man's phone call, a slightly older black man stopped his own phone conversation, walked over and told the young man, gently and respectfully, that he should cease using foul language. The younger man was chastened, and he changed his tone (for a bit anyway). Pundits and attorney generals can -- and do, and will -- talk endlessly about race; guys on the commute home, the words they use and the moves they make are the game-changers.

At some point, Americans are going to want something other than talk from this administration.

Holder's speech could be forgettable if it weren't such a wasted opportunity. True, courage is needed, but race isn't the elephant in the room that we're refusing to discuss. The issue that makes cowards of us all is this war we're in, and it's a subject that we need to be honest about, for ourselves and for the people fighting in it. Headlines have gone from calling the conflict "Bush's War" to "Obama's War," but altering the title doesn't change the fact that we're all missing the point.

Recently, not far from where a Continental jet plunged earthward in upstate New York, a Muslim owner of a TV station, who did public-relations work for Islam, allegedly killed his wife in what looks to be an "honor killing." What does this have to do with our cowardice and the war? Everything.

I don't blame Islam for an apparent honor killing in the Empire State. But as Phyllis Chesler, author of a study that recently appeared in Middle East Quarterly, can tell you, angry Muslim husbands can use the tenets of their creed to justify killing a wayward wife. The victim of the upstate murder once told a reporter: "I did not want my kids growing up to watch Muslims being portrayed as terrorists." Unfortunately, her husband may have been a terrorist, at least toward his family. Muslim religious leaders need to use this tragedy as a teaching moment instead of merely distancing themselves and their religion from this man's actions.

I don't want to see Muslim men portrayed as terrorists, either, but I want Muslim men to stop killing in the name of their religion. But first we have to call Islamic terrorism by its real name.

In April of 2004, Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, and wrote a bracingly honest book, "Willful Blindness: A Memoir of Jihad" (Encounter, 2008), about the experience, gave a speech in which he warned us that we were being clueless cowards. "Terrorism is not an enemy. It is a method. It is the most sinister, brutal, inhumane method of our age. But it is nonetheless just that: a method. You cannot, and you do not, make war on a method. War is made on an identified -- and identifiable -- enemy." McCarthy pinpointed the enemy as "militant Islam -- a very particular practice and interpretation of a very particular set of religious, political and social principles." He added: "Now that is a very disturbing, very discomfiting thing to say in 21st-century America. It is very judgmental. It sounds very insensitive. It is the very definition of politically incorrect. Saying it aloud will not get you invited to chat with Oprah!

. But it is a fact. And it is important both to say it and to understand it."

Now that is a speech that an attorney general or president should be making. But get the issue and the name right. Until then we do have a cowardice problem.