With each terrorist attack—from Fort Hood, to Brussels, to Paris, to San Bernardino, to Orlando—the Obama administration and the press provoke moral confusion by calling it a “tragedy.” Tragedy in the classical sense means that mysterious, divine forces stronger than we are ultimately determine our fate. That is to say, tragedy means unavoidable fate, like that which befell Oedipus. One can’t fight fate. To act against it is foolishness. But a calamity traceable to preventable human actions is not tragedy.
By calling terrorist attacks tragedies, Obama implies that citizens should accept terrorism as though it were compelled by the universe. The president has even said that tragedies simply “occur.” As such, we should be stoic in our anger, while full of pity for the victims, just as one pities Oedipus for his predetermined suffering. Believing that we suffer tragedies because of fate disarms us. It drives citizens deeper into their private, apolitical lives, suggesting that neither willfulness nor anger can adequately address suffering. Describing political and religious violence as tragic is in some sense a denial that such attacks are planned and executed by our enemies. This kind of rhetoric allows us to overlook that righteous anger must occasionally be mobilized in defense of our democratic system—and that it is a system worth defending.
The administration and the media also use the word “evolve” to describe our enemies—as in, “the terrorist threat continues to evolve.” This makes it sound as if a mysterious force compels jihadis, rather than premeditated motive or design. Just as we are compelled to suffer tragedies, our enemies are compelled to evolve. If that is really the cause of terrorists’ actions, shouldn’t we pity them for the manner in which evolution’s force deforms them? Surely one can’t fight an enemy that one pities. Or shall we say that evolution is bad because it fosters terrorism?
This evasive language is based in our desire to evade unpleasant truths: namely, that war is sometimes necessary. “Our most effective response to terror, and to hatred, is compassion, it’s unity, and it’s love,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on an Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub. For Lynch, fighting terrorism consists in standing together “in commitment, in solidarity, and in equality.” Her words read like satire.
Pretending that “love” and “compassion” can domesticate hatred and ambition promotes magical thinking—the belief that force is unnecessary, for example. Flattered and confused by such rhetoric, citizens may come to disbelieve an adversary’s stated ambitions. They become blind to world-transforming desires, like Hitler’s, or ISIS’s desire for a caliphate.
A sensible public vocabulary should strike the opposite tone, showing how formidable our enemies are, rather than implying that they are pitiable entities without mind or will. It should teach citizens to despise the barbarism behind terrorist attacks, a sentiment which would affirm our own civility. We can do this by publicly exposing the terrorists’ ambitions and plans. War is not caused by fate or evolution, in other words, but by will and design—among other things.
The public is sometimes animated by contrary impulses. We live in hopes of both perfect prosperity and perfect security, often without being able either to see or stomach the things necessary to bring them about. Good public education attempts to minimize, rather than exacerbate, such tendencies. We shouldn’t seek to make citizens more private, more self-loathing, and “gentler.” Rather, we should aim to make citizens more sensible—which is to say, more disposed to prudent action, and likelier to believe in action and victory than in tragedy and fate.
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