On Tuesday, August 19, an American citizen, James Foley, was savagely killed. The group of jihadists known as ISIL had previously killed and brutalized tens of thousands of non-Americans. But they killed Foley because he was an American. They titled the grotesque video of this particular act of barbarism “A message to America.”
On Wednesday, the president of the United States of America spoke. It would have been fitting if he had delivered a reply from America. It would have been proper if his reply to the savages who killed James Foley had been that they would be hearing from all of us soon.
Instead, the president began, “Today, the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group ISIL.” He went on to say that this act of violence “shocked the conscience of the entire world.”
The president thinks of himself as a “citizen of the world.” Therefore he chose to speak not just for America but for “the entire world.” The entire world seems to have, according to this president, a higher moral status, a higher political standing, than the mere nation-state he was elected to lead. So the president invoked the conscience of the world rather than speaking on behalf of James Foley’s fellow citizens.
But cosmopolitanism is never quite enough. Does “the entire world,” after all, really have a conscience? So the president ventured beyond this-worldly cosmopolitanism. He asserted of the terrorists that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Surely all Americans join the president in praying that the killers will face a just God. Surely all Americans join the president in trusting that “people like this ultimately fail.” But Americans also know that “ultimately” might be a very long time. A lot of innocents can die before then. And that ultimate failure isn’t typically caused by the actions of “the entire world,” and perhaps not even by those of a just God. The president said that the killers fail “because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.” But to make “people like this” fail, the builders need to dedicate themselves to destroying the destroyers. In the past century, the evildoers failed because America and its allies fought them and defeated them.
Perhaps this is merely a 20th-century perspective? The president assured us that “one thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.” But the first significant event of the 21st century was 9/11. And ISIL is doing a pretty effective job of carving out a place of its own in the new century. Are we all so confident that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century? Do we really know that the 21st century won’t be a time of barbarism triumphant? Doesn’t this depend to a large degree on whether America acts to shape the 21st century? Perhaps the choice is between a new American century or a newly barbaric century.
The president closed his remarks on a more patriotic note, by appealing to “the timeless values that we stand for.” But if values are “timeless,” and if standing for them is a choice, then History doesn’t in fact determine which group has what status in which century.
The president’s words were so vague and weak that Secretary of State John Kerry apparently felt he had to weigh in. So he took to Twitter, the bully pulpit of the 21st century, shortly after the president left for a round of golf, to send a tougher message. “ISIL will be destroyed/will be crushed,” Kerry tweeted.
Doesn’t the passive voice, though, undercut the toughness? Who is going to be doing the destroying and the crushing? And doesn’t the prophetic conceit undercut the credibility? Is John Kerry a reliable guide to the future? He hasn’t been before. His last such prophecy was that Syria’s Assad would be gone. In any case, prophecy is no substitute for policy. And Vice President Joe Biden said on the same day that the beheading of James Foley would mean no change in U.S. policy.
No change in policy means more victories for barbarism.