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President Obama's full Oval Office address
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Story highlights

  • U.S. President Barack Obama delivered Oval office speech on terrorism on Sunday
  • Jay Parini: Keeping terror in perspective, as President Obama has done, is important

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I feel grateful to President Barack Obama, who has urged a calm, steady, yet vigorous approach to the threat from radical Islam that has, in the wake of San Bernadino, come to our shores again.

As he implied in his speech to the nation Sunday night, it's easy to overreact to terror, which makes us feel, well, terrified. But the facts on the ground, so far, don't support the notion that we have been facing a great deal of active terrorism in this country. As New America has pointed out, there have been just 45 deaths in the United States from jihadist terror since 9/11. By comparison, there were 48 deaths perpetrated by (largely Christian) extremist or white racist groups on American soil during the same period.
Jay Parini
So keeping terror in perspective, as President Obama has done, is important. As is keeping in perspective the other very real threats to Americans' security. After all, during the same period of nearly a decade and a half since 9/11, this country has experienced the violent deaths of over 200,000 people, mostly by handguns. As they say: Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people, and the flood of weaponry that overwhelms this nation must be curbed.
    President Obama called for Congress to act in making it impossible for those on no-fly lists -- possible terrorist suspects -- to acquire assault weapons. This in itself seems like a no-brainer. Yet I would go farther, and suggest that our Founding Fathers never envisioned a country where every Tom, Dick, and Betty would pack heat, and could settle any dispute with a few well-placed rounds.
    My conservative friends complain the first reaction of all liberals is to seek to control guns, and they ask: "What would it really do?"
    In fact, it could do a lot, as we've seen in Australia. There, a deadly shooting in Tasmania, in 1996, prompted the newly elected (conservative) Prime Minister to push through strong gun control measures that included a buy-back of 600,000 semi-automatic weapons. Further, you had to present a genuine reason for wanting such a weapon if you wished to buy one, and "self-defense" wasn't considered a reasonable excuse. Private sales of these weapons were prohibited. And the results were definitive, with a massive plunge in violent deaths.
    Look carefully at the Australian example, as it presents a blueprint for what needs to be done in this country. And look at how well gun control measures have worked in Scotland, in Japan and elsewhere.
    The alternative, of course, is simply to allow this country to become an armed camp, and gun fights at the OK Corral taking place in every small town, every school, every church and government center from now until kingdom come.
    Is that what we genuinely want for this country?
    President Obama has also, wisely, suggested that we work with Muslim Americans in this country. They are part of our national fabric. And we must help them to root out extremists who do nothing to promote their religion.
    Those who slaughter innocents are not good Muslims, as every sound Muslim scholar will tell you. Terrorism is largely forbidden in the Koran, as is murder, as Juan Cole has pointed out. Indeed, only last September over a thousand leading Indian Muslim scholars and imams went to far as to put a fatwa on ISIS itself: the ultimate censor.
    Of course, those who wish to justify extremist views will find verses buried in the Koran that they can appropriate. I'm thinking of Koran 8:12, where one is told to strike at the necks those who are "bent on denying the truth."
    The same, of course, can be said for Christian scriptures, wherein one can find ample (even horrifying) verses that seem to justify the slaughter of innocent people. Deuteronomy is one of the key books of the Old Testament, and it's full of savagery, as when Moses in Deuteronomy 20: 16-18 tells his followers to obliterate people found in villages in Canaan that belong to them.
    I also teach a course on poetry and spirituality each year at Middlebury College, and my students are always horrified by Psalm 137, where God tells his followers to bash out the brains of little babies if they happen to be the children of one's enemies. Take a good look at that verse, which outdoes anything in the Koran.
    As President Bush has courageously said, "Islam is peace." He uttered that sentence in the wake of 9/11, aware that it makes no sense to vilify an entire religion that is made up of over a billion-and-a-half people, most of them peaceful, and which constitutes the fastest growing religion in the world today, according to a recent study by the Pew Foundation.
    Remember that Christians have refused to be defined by those few among them who promote violence or -- as in the 19th century -- justified the practice of slavery as something with biblical foundations (indeed, one can find plenty of verses in the Bible that condone slavery). Muslims, in the same vein, have been stepping forward around the world to condemn violence, and -- as Obama says -- we must get behind them, linking arms, creating a wall of resistance to extremism.
    So, after listening closely to what the President had to say Sunday night, I'm grateful for his clarity and eloquence, and his refusal to give in to inflammatory and divisive rhetoric. It's what we expect of our leaders. And it's nice, now and then, to get it.