The Angry, Conflicted President Obama on Airline Terrorism: Rhetorically Tough but Substantively Soft, Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Little
–Richard E. Vatz
Is the President more concerned about security or human rights? Does he believe that we are facing a war on terror, or is the alleged radical Islamic threat just a criminal problem? Do we need to give full Constitutional protections to manifestly dangerous terrorists who, when released, tend to seek employment with their original employers?
We hear most recently that the previously unflappable President Obama is now the angry president. Like the famous, fictive Howard Beale, he is “mad as hell” and “is not going to take it anymore.”
What is the evidence for the President’s rage? Is there also evidence for resolve –that he is taking firm action?
In his speech on security failures, President Obama said that his reviews of American intelligence pursuant to the “failed Christmas terrorist attack” are “now complete.” He said that counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan would “discuss his review into our terrorist watchlist system” and that “Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano [of the infamous “The System Worked” inference from the failed bombing of Flight 253, heading into Detroit] will discuss her review of aviation screening, technology and procedures…and how we’ll strengthen aviation security going forward.”
He then stated that their conclusions show that the intelligence community, although it acquired intelligence about al Qaeda’s ability and intentions to attack us, didn’t follow up on such knowledge sufficiently to reveal specifically that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “was planning an attack” and was incorrectly not placed on the no-fly list.
So, as a result, President Obama said he would direct the intelligence community to more assiduously investigate and act on terrorism leads, up-date the no-fly list, ensure better cooperation among competitors in the intelligence community, and improve screening technologies.
The president also promised to “to hold my staff, our agencies. and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels.”
Are there individuals who will be fired for incompetence? Apparently not, because the incident was a “”systemic failure,” not “the fault of a single individual,” according to the President.
What composes a system? Individuals. Do not be fooled by the rhetorical legerdemain. The President doesn’t like to fire people.
President Obama said in his speech. “…I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes…the buck stops with me.”
There is nothing mutually exclusive about firing dangerously incompetent members of one’s administration and correcting mistakes. In fact, they are mutually dependent. Saying the “buck stops here” is meaningless unless a leader takes courageous, corrective actions, including adopting effective policies he may have once opposed and firing ineffectual employees.
Profiling Americans on domestic flights? Nope – only citizens of countries which are “state sponsors of terrorism” and “countries of interest” who fly into the United States will be subject to intensive screening.
Is President Barack Obama tough? He is rhetorically tough but substantively and leadership soft.
The President needs to have the courage of his convictions; we cannot, as just one example, afford the Transportation Security Administration’s focus on avoiding profiling. We cannot – but we shall – close Guantanamo. We cannot – but we shall – import foreign terrorists to be tried in the United States as common criminals, with all Constitutional protections.
The President, of course, does not like threats to his country, but beyond that reflex, he is conflicted.
Americans will surely pay for that conflictedness with their lives.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University