James Gagliano: Trump's hesitance to call white supremacy what it is should alarm us all
But Obama also failed on this front, referring to "radical Islam" as "violent extremism" instead, writes Gagliano
Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Following the disgraceful hate rally organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, American leaders were unrelenting in their rebuke.
But while most politicians – on both sides of the aisle – were quick to condemn the rally and its participants, one individual for some 48 hours was far too measured and calculating in his response. And it took public outcry and a White House in crisis mode for President Donald Trump to course correct.
However, truth be told, the former reality television king isn’t the first sitting president to decline to speak truth-to-power when defining a terrorist incident – and let’s not parse words here, that’s what Charlottesville was. President Barack Obama was also fiercely criticized for benignly referring to “radical Islam” as something more nebulous, such as “violent extremism.”
And we are right to sharply criticize both presidents for failing to stare hate squarely in the face and call it exactly what it is.
The despicable thugs who showed up to march in Charlottesville, including none other than David Duke, were only too happy to align themselves with the current president. Duke vaingloriously sought the microphone at the “Unite the Right” rally and defiantly stated:
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back, we’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and that’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we gotta do.”
To borrow and remake an ill-fated 2012 campaign debate quote from Obama: Mr. Duke, the 1950s called, and they want their pathetically racist ideologies back.
Trump’s initial response on Saturday, in which he acknowledged there were “many sides,” left many of us feeling unsatisfied. We wanted him to act presidential. We wanted him to clearly enunciate the threat and condemn it in the strongest and most unequivocal language. And he let us down.
A White House e-mail to reporters sent out more than 36 hours after the assembly began was a pathetic excuse for a clear and swift condemnation of bigotry. And Trump’s own response on Monday, in which he finally called the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists “repugnant,” was far too slow to be considered entirely sincere.
But there is also a hypocrisy in the coverage of this event and the President’s subsequent responses, one that mirrors the Obama presidency and is worth exploring in greater detail.
As justifiably criticized as Trump’s tepid Saturday response was, many of the folks clamoring to hear more from this president were the same folks who cheered when Obama stubbornly refused to utter the term “radical Islam” to describe Middle Eastern jihadists involved in terrorism.
Obama’s response to the criticism that he needed to be more specific: This issue was “sort of manufactured.” The former president often took this deserved criticism as a simple partisan attack.
Those of us who’ve spent a career identifying the evil among us and are committed to keeping America safe shake our heads at the political pretzel-twisting politicians subject themselves to. If it meets the definition of terrorism, call it that. Once the perpetrators have been identified through exhaustive investigation, describe them in easily discernible terms.
Take the recent tweet of one-time Obama Attorney General Eric Holder: “If ISIS rammed a car into a crowd this would be labeled quickly & logically. Charlottesville – call it what it is, domestic terrorism.”
But didn’t Pentagon officials under Obama initially discuss the Fort Hood attack within the “broader context of workplace violence” instead of immediately labeling it radical Muslim extremism?
And, when I served as the special assistant to the assistant-director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office in Manhattan in 2015, I sat in on innumerable secure video teleconferences with the bureau’s 56 division heads and FBI headquarters. Watching briefings in which senior FBI officials had to comply with Holder’s DOJ mandate not to use “radical Islamists” to describe cases focused on radical Islamists often resulted in a wry and resigned smile from the briefer saddled with this ridiculous restriction. Holder insisted we refrain from “calling it what it is,” and instead mandated that these cases be described in more nebulous and ambiguous terms: “combating violent extremism” matters.
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While we’re all outraged over Trump’s indelicate dance to avoid calling the white racists, bigots and anti-Semites who have attached themselves like a barnacle to the GOP’s ship hull what they are, let’s be careful not to isolate the few, in order to smear the whole — a lesson we were repeatedly lectured about during the Obama era.
The world just isn’t as black and white as the bigoted protesters in Charlottesville would lead us to believe.