Updated with additional details: President Obama interrupted primetime on TV tonight to speak in a rare address from the Oval Office, to call Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino an act of terrorism perpetrated by two people who had “gone down the dark path of radicalization,” to call on Congress to block people on the country’s no fly list from barring firearms, and to tell the Muslim community they have a responsibility to condemn the lethal extremist interpretation of their religion.
Speaking from behind a podium, the president said “our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 on 9/11” but that there is no evidence the killers in last week’s holiday-party attack were directed by a terrorist organization overseas. But it’s clear the two “had gone down the dark path of radicalization… and that this “was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.”
Over last few years terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase as we become more adept at thwarting “complex, multi faceted attacks like 9/11” and turn to “less complicated” acts “like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society,” while the internet has erased the distance between countries and become part of a growing effort to poison the minds of people.”
Wednesday’s attack and the recent ISIS-organized slaughter of 130 in Paris have left many Americans “asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” Obama said. “The threat from terrorism is real but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL.”
Among the steps Obama said Congress should take right away was making sure no one on the country’s no-fly list has the ability to buy a gun. “What could possibly be argument for a suspected terrorist to buy a semi-automatic weapon?” he asked, rhetorically, while acknowledging there are some politicians who “reject any gun safety measures.”
He cautioned against being drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq and Syria, warning that strategy is “what groups like ISIL want. They know if we occupy foreign lands they can maintain insurgencies for years.”
“Here’s what else we cannot do; we cannot turn against one another,” Obama said. Turning this into a fight between America and Islam “is what ISIL wants. They do not speak for Islam,” he said of the terrorist org, adding that Muslim leaders have a responsibility to loudly reject the extremist cult.
But it is also the responsibility of Americans to reject religious tests on who we admit in this country,” he said. “When we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that kind of betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.”
Obama’s rare address from the Oval Office was set up on Friday in the wake of San Bernardino’s slaying of 14 people and wounding of 21 other by a pair of heavily armed shooters last Wednesday. Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik were gunned down by police after they killed 14 people and injured 21 others during a holiday party being attended by Farook’s co-workers. The FBI is investigating the massacre as a terrorist attack since late last week after learning Malik had pledged allegiance to ISIS on Facebook shortly before Wednesday’s attack.
It’s only the third time Obama has spoken to the public from the Oval office, which raises the stakes, insiders said in the walk-up to the speech, in an effort to reset the conversation in the wake of inflammatory rhetoric after Wednesday’s attack. The Obama White House on Friday asked the broadcast networks to clear the time tonight, when HUT levels are particularly high, in order to reach as many Americans as possible.
Obama hopes the speech will assure the country his approach to handling the threat of terrorist attacks in this country remains viable, as polls show an increasing number of people in the country have come to feel otherwise.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump also hoped to make hay with tonight’s Oval Office address:
The Kennedy Center originally announced Obama had cancelled plans to attend tonight’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony at the performing arts center in Washington D.C., honoring Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Saiji Ozawa. But he showed up, after delivering his TV address. First Lady Michelle Obama also attended; the First Couple traditionally sits in the balcony of the theater with those being honored by the center during the fundraising event, which CBS will broadcast later in the month. Previous president have missed the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony; Jimmy Carter did not attend the ceremony in 1979 because of the Iran hostage crisis; Bill Clinton missed the ceremony in ’94 to travel to Budapest for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The White House had said Obama also would use his 15-minute address to reiterate “that the United States must draw upon our values – our unwavering commitment to justice, equality and freedom – to prevail over terrorist groups.” This morning, Loretta Lynch, made her first Sunday Beltway show appearance as Attorney General, telling NBC’s Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd that Obama would use the air time to urge Americans not to “give in to fear.”
“You may hear him call on Congress to review measures and take action as well. But I think what you’re going to hear the president say is to call on the American people to pull out the best in themselves and not give into fear at this time.”