With the Cato counterterrorism strategy conference recently concluded, I listened to President Obama's speech with a keen ear for his treatment of terrorism. My early conclusion was that he communicated well two out of three times, which ain't bad.
Communications about terrorism are important. Done badly, they can inspire fear and overreaction on the part of the U.S. populace and government - doing terrorists' work for them. They can also aid in recruitment and support for terrorists by exalting terrorism and terrorist leaders to audiences that are physically and ideologically nearby to terrorists.
Done well, communications about terrorism can suppress fear and overreaction and render terrorism less attractive to potential supporters, would-be's, and wannabe's. Ultimately, smart communications and disciplined responses can dissipate the value of terrorism as a tool to use against us.
I was disappointed by a line very early in the speech: "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."
I don't think there is any sensible way to interpret this other than as references to the "War on Terror" and Al-Qaeda. It's a handy recruitment aid for Al-Qaeda to have the new U.S. President signal that it Al-Qaeda is in his head. People who don't like the United States were drawn to Al-Qaeda by that line.
It is good to avoid the actual phrase "War on Terror," of course, but the problem is not with the phrase alone. It is with the notion that war is the correct metaphor, and with the implication that military action or militarism is the best response to terrorism. In fact, military responses are almost always going to be overreaction.
Next quote: ". . . we have chosen hope over fear . . ."
It's easy to disregard this small line, and it's only an oblique reference to terrorism, but it's an important one because it's part of repeated pledge President Obama made in the campaign to put aside fear. He should follow up on the promise by avoiding terrorism fear-mongering himself and by policing his administration against it. Thumbs-up.
Final quote, and a big winner: "[F]or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
I regret that he raised terrorism again because of the benefit it gives terrorists (knowing that they are in his head). But if it is going to be raised, I can't think of a better way to do so - no reference to any specific group, just a declaration to anyone considering terrorism: You will lose.
His statement of U.S. indomitability is powerful. While discouraging terrorists, he gave the domestic audience needed confidence. Come what may, terrorism cannot defeat us.
During the Q&A on the first panel of Cato's conference (Real, MP3), Ambassador Robert Hutchings stated his wish that the Bush Administration had issued messages of "indomitability, not revenge" in the aftermath of 9/11. The Obama Administration has to "gradually and carefully walk us back" from the approach the Bush Administration took, said Hutchings, and this statement from President Obama seems like a very good start.
So a qualified "good job" on communications about terrorism in President Obama's inaugural address. We'll hope for better in the future, and we'll look forward to the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy, including its terrorism communications strategy.