White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest initially responded to the horrific attack in Paris on Wednesday like an automaton.
In an appearance on CNN at 8:45 a.m. ET, Earnest robotically began by condemning this episode of “violence” and touting the efforts of the administration to counter the impression that Islam is a violent ideology – a staple of all Western counterterror campaigns since September 12, 2001.
“You keep using the word violence,” CNN anchor Chris Cuomo interjected. “This is an act of terrorism.”
“Do you see this as an act of terrorism?” Cuomo probed the representative of the President of the United States.
Earnest’s response was perfectly uninspiring.
“I think, based on what we know right now, it does seem like that is what we’re confronting here,” he replied. “And this is an act of violence that we certainly do condemn. And, you know, if based on this investigation it turns out to be an act of terrorism then we would condemn that in the strongest possible terms, too.”
Yes, that’s exactly what this moment calls for: Lawyerly dissembling.
Shortly before Earnest was due to appear on Fox News to discuss the deadly attack in Paris, President Barack Obama released a formal statement in which he did not display any of Earnest’s undue caution.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack and the people of France at this difficult time,” Obama said. “France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers.”
Suddenly, it appeared that Earnest was the recipient of a critical transfusion of human blood. When pinned down by Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer just over 30 minutes later about the administration’s language regarding the nature of this attack, Earnest displayed no reservations about characterizing the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo as an act of terrorism.
“What we’re seeing here is an event that just occurred a couple of hours ago,” he said in his defense. “But what is clear is that this is an act of violence, an act of terrorism, that we condemn in the strongest possible terms.”
Was it really reckless speculation to call this attack an act of terrorism at 8:45 but not 9:20? Did a thorough investigation conclude in the 35 minutes that elapsed between Earnest’s appearance on CNN and Fox that assured him it was a responsible course to call this a terrorist attack? Of course not.
By failing to call this a terrorist attack immediately, the White House was displaying cowardice. They demonstrated the fear that they might offend with the use of the term “terrorism.” It is the same impulse that leads others to dig deep within themselves to seek out a kernel of sympathy for militant Islamists who appeal to violence in order to seek satisfaction for their hurt feelings. Remorselessness, not sympathy, is what is demanded in this moment. Clearly, the White House was not prepared to meet posterity’s expectations this morning.