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Analyzing President Trump’s rhetoric toward terrorism

| Wednesday, October 30, 2019

On Sunday, President Trump announced that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, died during an American raid in northwestern Syria. In March, ISIS lost Baghouz, its final stronghold in Syria and Iraq, leading many to proclaim the defeat of the terrorist organization. American politicians and world leaders praised the justice brought on al-Baghdadi. Defense Secretary Mark Esper described it as a “devastating blow” to ISIS. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it an “impressive achievement” and the Saudi Arabian government praised the death of a man who “distorted the real image of Islam.”

However, this not the end of the ISIS story. I could talk about the re-emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the dangers of ongoing U.S. military withdrawals in the Middle East, or how ISIS’s decentralized nature means the death of a leader will not stop the organization’s attacks across the world. But let me be clear. This is not to undermine the significance of al-Baghdadi’s death. He is responsible for countless deaths across the world and spreading an ideology built on fear, hatred and violence that goes against everything moral in the world. His death further deteriorates ISIS’s legitimacy and points towards the eventual eradication of the terrorist group. However, we should not underestimate the capabilities of this terrorist organization. Rather, we should continue efforts towards the eradication of ISIS as world leaders and White House officials suggest.

However, the media has covered these issues extensively. Rather than reiterate these sources, this column focuses on President Trump’s rhetoric toward the event. The president described al-Baghdadi’s death with humiliating details that downsize the terrorist leader’s strength and importance. In typical Trumpian fashion, he used colorful, vivid language. Here are a few lines from President Trump’s remarks:

Al-Baghdadi was a “thug” who “spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread.”

“He [Baghdadi] died like a dog. He died like a coward.”

Al-Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”

Terrorists are “savage monsters.”

The president’s language was quickly criticized across the political sphere. Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), senior GOP member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the language made him “uncomfortable.” Ambassador Dana Shell Smith, former ambassador to Qatar, wrote that “Trump’s taste for cinema and unscripted drama could endanger Americans and our supporters around the world, limit our ability to conduct future operations, especially with allies in the region, and damage our deserved claim to the moral high ground.” She then described the possibility of retaliation as a result of President Trump’s rhetoric that could endanger American citizens. Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, suggested the president’s language “feeds into the ISIS and the al-Qaeda narrative about the U.S. being at war with Muslims in nations throughout the world.”

There are some problems with these criticisms. First, they seem to place the fault of a retaliatory terrorist attack on the president’s choice of words. While rhetoric can certainly provoke violent responses, as a study regarding terrorism suggests, the death of al-Baghdadi has already stoked that fire. Second, in reference to the moral high ground, America is preserving that position. Those responsible for unjustified killings and ruthless regimes do not deserve the same respect as one’s neighbor or friend. Describing these individuals in a negative tone is necessary to reinforce the message that terrorists are vicious, evil threats. Furthermore, it delegitimizes the glamor and charismatic personality terrorist leaders build of themselves, combatting efforts at recruiting or maintaining morale. Rep. Thornberry described this effect later in his interview on CNN. Third, Leiter’s worry about an anti-Muslim narrative from the U.S. is unfounded. President Trump’s remarks only related to terrorists. They clearly do not represent the values of Muslim communities across the world, but instead promote a false interpretation of their religion. 

However, this does not mean the president’s speech was remarkable. His insistence on descriptive imagery and providing as many details as possible showcase a lack of discipline and problematic behavior. His divulgence of information regarding U.S. military practices places American soldiers and the effectiveness of the nation’s counterterrorism strategies at risk. At the same time, President Trump’s gory rhetoric suggests an obsession with al-Baghdadi, or ISIS as a whole. While his negative rhetoric can diminish the significance of these terrorists, it can also display the stress and anxiety they impose on the president, and thus America at large. The gruesome descriptiveness in every second of the speech portrays the source of worry the terrorists display to the president. This would make sense, considering recent criticism towards President Trump over his abrupt withdrawal of troops in Syria that led to the escape of many ISIS prisoners. The president needed a win. However, terrorists can view this attention to detail as a victory, seeing how they chip away at the endurance and stamina of the leader of the free world. 

There must be a balance in the way we describe terrorists and approach these situations. Public addresses and remarks are broadcasted across the world, and at these historic moments, define the mindset toward the event. Al-Baghdadi and other terrorists should certainly be disavowed for their evil, despicable behavior. But that does not mean every detail is necessary, and we should not obsess over it. Just as not naming mass shooters in media degrades their actions and reduces copycats, moving on from al-Baghdadi and similar situations removes the legitimacy of the terrorist organization and the threat it poses to everyday American life. It is important that Americans adopt this mindset, as it robs terrorists of their main tool: fear. However, this does not mean to ignore the terrorist threat altogether. Recognize the threat, terminate it and move onto the next mission. Moving on does not mean to forget the threat, but rather approach new threats with insight gained from past experience. 

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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