Opinion Columns & Blogs

John M. House: Words matter

I think there are a lot of people in this country who just do not really understand the challenges that we face and the impact of their words. Two recent incidents have brought that thought to my mind once again. The report that President Obama said we could absorb another terrorist attack concerns me, as does the congressional testimony of Stephen Colbert regarding illegal immigration.

I agree with the president that we can absorb another terrorist attack and continue to exist as a nation. I have great faith in this country and its people even if I disagree with things that some of my fellow Americans say, do, or believe. Unfortunately, President Obama’s comment implying that he was prepared for the country to have to absorb another terrorist attack was not a good choice of words. I believe he was trying to say that our country is sufficiently resilient to be able to withstand another terrorist attack should one breach our homeland security efforts.

Nonetheless, leaders must be very careful with the words that they use, especially in a time of war or other calamity, because sometimes they can be misunderstood. President Obama has a tendency to make an intellectual argument about matters that many people view with emotion rather than objectivity. They want encouragement and inspiration, not a lecture.

War is serious and deadly. I do not think the president has a good sense of the mood of most Americans when talking about terrorism and securing the nation.

I enthusiastically support President Obama’s use of Predator unmanned aerial systems to kill terrorists and insurgents in Pakistan. I admit I was surprised at his willingness to do so, but it is clear he is willing to kill our enemies when we find them. He deserves more credit than he gets sometimes for taking the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The implication of a lack of commitment to winning our wars caused by this comment about absorbing a terrorist attack (p. 363 in Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars) diverted attention from the positive steps he is taking.

The other comments recently that really excited me were made by the comedian Stephen Colbert. Colbert made a mockery of the U.S. Congress when he used his comedy routine to testify about a very serious issue — illegal immigration. Regardless of your feelings on the issue and whether you support full amnesty or deportation of every illegal immigrant, I think everyone can agree that illegal immigration is a serious concern that warrants thoughtful debate and action. The issue is not funny, and it is very emotional and challenging for our leaders who must decide the appropriate actions to take, and for our citizens who have different views regarding the actions that should be taken. Having a comedian provide comedic testimony was idiotic and demeans the Congress and the issue. I am amazed that anyone elected to Congress could be so stupid as to think a comedy routine in testimony was going to help resolve the problem.

Words matter. Political leaders must take care to ensure the words they say are appropriate for the message that they want to convey. That goes for words they personally say and also the words they invite to be said. I hope our president and our congressional leaders understand this now.