December 8, 2015
Tonight, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) spoke on the Senate floor, criticizing Washington's lack of urgency and seriousness in confronting the growing threat of militant Islam.
Remarks as prepared for delivery:
I rise today to speak about San Bernardino; about the decades-long fight that our free society now faces; and about our dangerous unwillingness to tell the truth about the nature of this battle – about who our enemy is.
We are at war.
The American people already know this. Our enemies obviously know this. It is only this town – where our so-called leaders dawdle and bicker, pander and misprioritize – it is only this town that seems confused. Washington ignores what it cannot escape.
And that is both a tragedy and a crisis. Because no war is winnable when you pretend that you are not even in one.
Let’s start by admitting that this war is different from most wars of the past. This is not about borders or territory. This is not about gold or other material goods.
We typically think about state actors, about traditional governments going to war with traditional governments. In this war, however, the enemy includes many non-state actors – many armed groups who are developing global reach in this flatter, technologically-linked modern world.
Our enemy is merciless and barbaric. They are willing to kill people who are not on traditional battlefields. They will kill non-combatants. They will kill women and children. They will kill at holiday parties and restaurants, at Jewish delis and at sports stadiums.
Just as sadly as the evolution of enemies, though, this war is hard for the American people to get our heads around because right now we have so much confusion – so much drift, so much orphanhood – in understanding exactly who we are – and what precisely we are defending.
This body, the Congress, tries to do far too many things, and we do few of them well. But when there are really important things we should be doing, well then folks seem unable to muster the time or energy or will to focus diligently on the big task.
Today, we have such a big task sitting right in front of us.
And I would humbly suggest that before another person in this body – or in the national media – stands up to scold the American people about how they could possibly entertain voting for candidate x or y, perhaps we should look in the mirror at why so many of our people are running to demagoguing leaders.
Do senators really not understand why this is happening? I think it’s obvious why: Because they get so little actual leadership out of this town – out of either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, or out of either political party.
Make no mistake: There were some genuinely dreadful things said on the national stage yesterday. But they were almost totally predictable. Did anyone here really not see this coming? And why is it that these words are attractive to some? Why do they find so many followers? Because they are comforting to people who are scared. They are food to a people who are starved for real leadership.
Sunday night was a drought. Monday night was a flood. Neither are what the people need – or what they, at their best, want. But don’t be surprised that a people who are being misled by a political class in denial about the nature of this fight comes then quickly to desire very different, much more muscular words and utopian pledges.
This town’s conversations are so often completely disconnected from the people.
You want to know what people calling my office – and stopping me in the grocery store since Paris and now since San Bernardino – want to talk about? They want to talk about what sharia law is – and how many Muslims believe in it. It’s a fair question for moms to ask.
And they want to talk about American Exceptionalism – who are we; what are we for; what are we against? What unites us?
We should talk more about these things. For a few minutes tonight, let’s just step briefly beyond this media cycle and look at where we stand.
This is a clash of civilizations— a fight between free people and a totalitarian movement. And let me say clearly that recognizing a clash of civilizations is not the same as wanting one.
We are free and our enemies hate it. They hate that my wife leaves our home. They hate that my daughters know how to read. They hate that we decided where we would go to church on Sunday.
They hate us not because of any particular thing we have done, by omission or by commission; they hate us because of who we are.
They hate us because we have a Constitution that enshrines our freedoms. And it is this Constitution that we should be fighting to defend. We should fight to defend the framework that has secured freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly for more than two hundred years – not initially judging every man by the content of his character instead of the color of his skin, but eventually guiding us beyond this American original sin and toward a more perfect union.
This weekend, I went to San Bernardino. My wife and I laid flowers at a memorial that has popped up on a sidewalk outside the site where 35 of our neighbors bled this week. Fourteen of them died in this massacre.
We talked to our American neighbors there in a neighborhood that should not be a part of a war zone. But a neighborhood that will now forever be a battlefield memorial.
Some of the people grieving there wondered aloud to us: Why are our politicians so small, so mealy-mouthed? One Marine asked my wife if Washington really even cares about the victims of jihadi attacks like this. One woman asked why no one in Washington seems to be a full-throated lover of America.
They are wrong, of course, about the caring and the loving. But they can be forgiven for wondering why we are so unable to be full-throated about the big stuff.
We owe to those who died this week to tell the truth about the nature of this conflict. We owe it to those fourteen; we owe it to their families. We owe it to the service men and women in uniform who are abroad right now fighting for our freedom, some of whom will come home in caskets. We owe to the families of those who haven’t yet died – but will – in the next jihadi attack on our homeland.
For it is coming.
All adults know that the next attack is coming. You don’t need to see the classified briefings some of us see to know that the future is dangerous. The San Bernardino fourteen will not be the last Americans to bleed and die – in our homeland – because we are a free society.
And so we should tell the truth about the enemy we face. We should tell the truth about them but we should also dig down to be honest about who we are; we should reaffirm our core values.
We are not at war with terrorism, which is just a tactic. We are not at war with some empty sociological label called extremism.
We are not even just at war with ISIS — though we're obviously at war with ISIS — but there will be other enemies that will lift the black flag of death in the future even after ISIS has been routed in Syria and Iraq.
This is not about workplace violence. This is not about global warming or gun shows. This is not about income inequality. This is not about kids from broken homes, as tragic as that is, at home or abroad.
Again, against a whole load of hand-wringing mush, we need to remember that this attack -- and the next attack -- are not about anything that we have done wrong. This is about who we are. This is about the nature of freedom.
So who are we? We are people who unite around the Constitution. We are people who come together around the 1st Amendment, and we together, 320 million of us, believe in the freedom of religion, in the freedom of speech, in freedom of assembly, in the freedom of the press.
I am a Christian. I am not a Muslim. But I am also in this life an American, and I have taken an oath to the Constitution. And so, as an American, I stand and defend the rights of American Muslims to freely worship even though we differ about important theological matters.
In America, we are free to believe different things, and to argue about those beliefs. It matters what you think about the nature of God, and whether he has revealed himself. What you think about salvation matters. Heaven and hell matter. But these things are actually so important, that we don’t try to solve any of them by violence.
America is about the right to argue about our differences with our neighbors. But to make those arguments free from violence. We in this land, under this Constitutional creed, come together as a community of Americans to unite around the core American values, of freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and press.
So now, as it is emphatically and indisputably clear that we are not at war with all Muslims, let’s tell the truth that we most certainly are at war with militant Islam. We are at war with violent Islam. We are at war with jihadi Islam. We are at war with those who believe in killing in the name of religion.
This is in fact precisely what America means: It is about being free to raise your kids, free to build a corner store, free to worship and assemble without the fear of violence. And so can argue about religion. Because many of us disagree.
But then we come together as Americans to protect each other, to defend each other against religious killing.
There are many hand-wringers in Washington who refuse to name the enemy we face. They refuse to admit that we are at war with militant Islam, with jihadi Islam, with violent Islam. They dance around platitudes and empty labels, hiding behind a worry (an understandable worry) that Muslims in America could face backlash.
I share this fear. And I believe that telling the truth about who is, and who is not, our enemy is actually the only sure pathway to avoiding that danger.
I think that those who refuse to tell the truth about our enemy – those who will nonsensically claim that the next jihadi attack is somehow just another random case of workplace violence – are making the backlash far more likely, not less likely.
Here's how I think this backlash happens: the people who are supposed to be laser-focused on protecting us (that’s us) mouth more silly platitudes that show that we’re either too weak or too confused to keep our people safe.
Then, a megalomaniac strongman steps forward and starts screaming about travel bans and deportations and he promise to keep us safe, which, to some (and actually to many more than most of you seem to understand) sounds better than not being protected at all.
You want to stop Islamaphobia? Stop lecturing Americans that they’re supposedly stupid to be frightened about jihadis who actually do want to bomb their sporting event. And instead use your pen and phone as Commander-in-Chief to start telling us what your plan is to find and kill those who would do us harm. Start telling us what your actual plan is to have a Middle Eastern map that isn’t generating more failed states that become terrorist training camps.
This country invented religious liberty--we're the most tolerant nation the world has ever seen. Our people want a little less elite sermonizing about tolerance in our communities, and a little more articulation of our shared Constitutional principles – and a lot more articulating of an actual battle plan.
If you’re worried about backlash – if you’re worried about obviously over-the-top rhetoric from unserious political candidates – perhaps it would be useful if those of us who have the actual job of protecting the Constitution told the truth.
We should be clear about who we are and about the freedoms we stand for. And we should be clear about those who would try to kill us because we believe in these freedoms.
We are at war with militant or jihadi Islam, but we are not at war with people who believe in the American creed, which includes the right of everybody of every religion to freely worship and to freely speak, and to freely assemble and argue. We are not at war with all Muslims. We are not at war with Muslim families in Lincoln and Dearborn who want the American Dream amid a pluralistic society for their kids. But we are most certainly at war with those who want to spread a variety of religion that aims to motivate the killing and the freedom-taking of other Americans.
This fight will be decades long. And we will win it. But not by denying that the fight exists. We will not win it by being mushy – about either who we are or who they are. We will win it instead by being clearer – about both who they are, and who we are. We will win it by reaffirming our core Constitutional values. We will win it because of who we are – a people who believe in freedom, and a people who are willing to fight and even to die to preserve a a free society for all Americans.
MacBeth includes that aching line life "is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." The context is an aimless people, drifting from who they are, drifting toward nihilism signifying nothing.
This should not be us. This cannot be us.
For America does signify something. Something special. The belief that everyone— Christian, Jew, Muslim, black, white, man, woman, rich, poor, first-generation, fifth-generation— everyone is endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Government is our shared project in safeguarding those rights. Our Constitution – our shared creed – gives us a framework for ordered liberty. When politicians – whether incumbents who have forgotten their oaths, or candidates trying to run merely on the bluster of their personality – don’t talk about the Constitution, when they don’t defend first principles, when they refuse to prefer substance over soundbites – when we nonsensically say that our enemy has nothing to do with Islam or conversely that every Muslim is prejudged guilty – then our national conversation crumbles into simple sound and fury.
That is not us. For we are Americans.