When President Barack Obama finally spoke up about the Christmas Day terrorist attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, one of the most staggering phrases to roll from his lips was “isolated extremist.”
This was three full days after the attack. By that time the “isolated extremist” himself, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had already told U.S. authorities that he’d trained with al-Qaeda bomb-makers in Yemen. The father of the “isolated extremist” had warned U.S. officials weeks earlier that his son might be consorting with terrorists. U.S. intelligence had already been tracking a “Nigerian” who was so very un-isolated that the makings of a plot could be discerned even before his identity had been discovered.
Obama didn’t need a top secret briefing to learn all this. If, as his aides told us, he was “monitoring” the situation before he spoke in public, he could have picked up most of it on the Drudge Report, or merely by bothering to read the morning papers. The chief systemic failure here is a president whose world view defaults to the idea that there is no Islamist war on America — just the odd flareup when an “isolated extremist” picks up a gun and shoots dead 13 people at Fort Hood, or tries to blow a plane out of the sky by detonating a bomb in his underwear.
If Obama meant to suggest only that Abdulmutallab was “isolated” at the moment when, inflight, pants aflame, he was jumped by his fellow passengers, that still doesn’t wash. For the president even to imply that Abdulmutallab was acting solo, and for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to put out the same line the day before (as she did, “Right now, we have no indication that it’s part of anything larger”) amounts to either willfully misleading the American public, or a mindset too engulfed in slop to think straight about the most vital matters of U.S. security. (More on this is my Forbes column this week: “Not So Isolated, and More Than Extremist.”)
Or perhaps there is a confluence of the two — there’s quite a debate going on right now about which comes first, the sloppy thinking or the willful misleading. For a masterful treatment of both, this would be a good moment to pull up, yet again, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In that brilliant essay, written in 1946, Orwell warned that there is a vicious spiral to these things: The English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” and then “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
The truth of Orwell’s observation has been richly displayed this past year, as the Obama administration has tried to euphemize away a global war of Islamists trying to take down free societies.
If you’re an average Joe planning to take a plane, it’s a good bet you’re a tad worried that a Muslim terrorist might try to kill you en route. If you’re a high-ranking security official in the Obama administration, entrusted with spending billions to ensure the safety of America, you are constrained to fret that despite U.S. efforts to bring “an end” to “Overseas Contingency Operations,” there is still a risk that an “isolated extremist” might “allegedly” attempt to bring about a “man-caused disaster.” (In which case, the “suspect,” if caught, will be treated as a common criminal, read his Miranda rights, provided with the best available medical care if needed, and offered a stage in a U.S. court).
When polysyllabic fuzz is the lingo — and mindset — of the “system,” it’s hard to see how the result can be anything but repeated “systemic failure.” At some point, and probably sooner rather than later, that “systemic failure” will open the gate for a “man-caused disaster” of proportions that will force Obama to interrupt even a beach vacation for an immediate address to an American public that will by that stage be massively stricken, grieving, outraged and demanding real answers. Right now, the administration is emitting squid ink about “investigations” and “accountability.” When does Obama, with all his vaunted eloquence, wake up to the reality that to honor his twice-taken presidential oath, he needs to think and speak in plain English about how to win this alleged man-(or-woman)-caused systemic contingency war?