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Obama's Lecture on Labels Misses the Point

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Tragedy brings out the best in people and the worst in people. When it is presented on stage, we hold with Aristotle that it evokes pity, fear and the terrifying understanding that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

To the ancient Greek philosopher, tragedy offered insight into the mind of a hero with a fatal flaw. The audience is invited to feel emotion directly through the power of words and dramatic action.

When tragedy takes place in reality and strikes closer to home, we read the details and watch images on television with horror, trying to fathom the depths of the unfathomable. In Orlando, tragedy struck in the heart of a community, where friends were confronted by an overwhelming evil that spilled blood in Pulse -- a pleasure dome aptly named, for it quickened the spirits of its patrons. It was the kind of place radical Islamists would naturally want to destroy.

When Omar Mateen fired away, friends tried to protect friends -- shielding their bodies with their own, desperately seeking places to hide and even returning to the building to rescue others. We send prayers and condolences to the grieving as we ponder, without the gloss of poetry, how such things can happen.

It's a hideous picture of carnage, a message not from a man with a single flaw but from a pure villain with evil ambition absorbed through radical Islamic indoctrination that directed him with a narrow reading of the Quran. Mateen was warped by the evil that evil people tell men and women to kill so they themselves can die as martyrs.

When President Obama describes Mateen's act as "homegrown" he misses the point. The roots of Mateen's "homegrown" evil run deep into the evil of the Islamic State group, or ISIL, and its conduits of vast media networks. Mateen was one evil man representing many evil men determined to perpetuate jihad. They have a vocabulary that unifies them, but we don't have a vocabulary that unifies us.

The president adamantly objects to changing his descriptive language, suggesting that such change is meaningless, and he scolds those who ask him to change it as scoring empty political points.

"For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize the administration and me for not using the phrase 'radical Islam,'" he says. "That's the key,' they tell us. 'We cannot beat ISIL unless we call them radical Islamists.' What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change?"

Well, since he asked, it would offer a precise understanding of its appeal as a perverted interpretation of Islam. Using such a precise phrase would give cover to millions of peaceful Muslims who are outraged by what is carried out by radicals in the name of their religion. It would identify its appeal to young men and women who call themselves Muslims, but whose radicalism is fundamentally ideological and political. It would draw attention to the mosques -- and there are hundreds of them across the land -- that preach violent politics, not a faith of the heart and spirit. It would answer the mistaken prescription to bar all Muslims from America, and draw the issue as one of our nation's security being threatened by "radical Islam," not Islam.

This message from the president would explain the Orwellian appeal of another "homegrown" man who has had such a strong influence on aspiring terrorists. The "sermons" of the American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was targeted for death by the CIA in 2011, were eagerly consumed by Omar Mateen, as well as the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters and the Fort Hood killer. These men all became soldiers of their "faith," not merely soldiers of something the president wants everyone to call "workplace violence."

In World War II the nation was united behind a president who led through his use of language, his fireside chats, his unequivocal naming of the enemy and his determination to defeat it. Franklin D. Roosevelt's words were taken from the inventory of the nation's arsenal. Words mattered.

Of course, now we are in a different kind of war, and Barack Obama is a man of a different generation. He came into office at a time when political correctness dictates public thinking. He made euphemism his own, and he made it cool, but he has not made the enemy clear. Donald Trump scored a point with his observation that the president seemed to get angrier talking about him than he did talking about Omar Mateen, who went down shouting praise for Allah and ISIL. Obama's evasion and euphemism give Trump his strongest card.

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