When a ship is in trouble, a sailor’s instinct is to watch the captain’s face. Does it show fear, perhaps panic? A calm resolve? Or something in-between? After the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, many Americans turned to Barack Obama to check his reaction. As commander in chief, a president must set a mental tone for the ship of state.
Fourteen years after 9/11, the public’s focus on national leaders like President Obama or French President François Hollande after a terrorist attack remains important. A group like Islamic State seeks to instill fear, not only of itself but also of the Muslims who flee it. The more that Syrian refugees are treated with fear, for example, the more they might support the paradise-promising vision of a would-be IS caliphate.
Prejudice and unfounded suspicion can create their own reality. As the fear of Syrian refugees rises, recruitment only becomes easier for IS. In the same way, an overreaction to fear can also feed the IS narrative. When large armies of nonMuslim soldiers fight in a Middle East conflict, it can help unite Muslims behind a terrorist group, especially if civilians are killed. Or if a nonMuslim country resorts to extreme surveillance or unjust imprisonment, it can bring a backlash among Muslims.
Breaking this cycle of paranoia which is so aptly employed by terrorists requires everyone to constantly confront one’s fears, or rather our reactions to them. After the Paris attacks and similar IS assaults on Russians and Turks, Mr. Obama made clear where he stands: “We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.” Americans need to stop playing to fear, he says, “because the world is watching.”
Obama’s advice, however, was not helped by his previous downplaying of IS’s advances. Just before the Paris killings, for example, he claimed IS was contained. And he referred to the group as a junior-varsity version of al Qaeda. Perhaps he was misled by his intelligence chiefs about the expansion of IS beyond its Middle East strongholds and about the continuing appeal of its violent jihad among disaffected young Muslims. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, was also sometimes misled by inadequate intelligence.
The defeat of IS will require not only a clear understanding of what one is afraid of but also how fear plays into it. In a democracy, political opponents should debate the range of tactics necessary against terrorists. But they must not do so by exploiting public fears for political gain. In the current climate, pandering to fear comes too easily. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds 57 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s strategy for defeating IS. And 83 percent agree that a terrorist attack in the United States resulting in large casualties is probable in the near future.
A US president should not easily dismiss public fears. It is not enough for Obama to simply say, “The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid.” Fear of fear is only a first step out of fear. Rather, Obama does well when he points out, for example, that “99.9 percent of humanity” does not support the ideology and methods of IS. In other words, humanity – individual by individual – must bravely and tightly embrace universal values such as freedom, equality, and openness. The walls of fear more easily fall when the trumpets of affirmation are sounded.
Obama certainly tries to project calm. “My expectation is, after the initial spasm of rhetoric, that people will settle down,” he says. He may yet be right, but only with more leadership on his part and other political leaders. He could, for example, be more reassuring about the government's rigor in vetting Syrian refugees or the quality of intelligence about IS. In a two-front war – one against IS, the other against domestic fear – a president must show stern resolve against both. The sailors will then unite in saving the ship of state.