Barack Obama’s remarkable powers of oratory are well known: In support of Chicago’s Olympic bid, he flew into Copenhagen to give a heartwarming speech about himself, and the games were given to Rio. He flew into Boston to support Martha Coakley’s bid for the U.S. Senate, and Massachusetts voters gave Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican. In the first year of his presidency, he gave a gazillion speeches on health care “reform” and drove support for his proposals to basement level, leaving Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to ram it down the throats of the American people through sheer parliamentary muscle.
Like a lot of guys who’ve been told they’re brilliant one time too often, President Obama gets a little lazy and doesn’t always choose his words with care. And so it was that he came to say a few words about Daniel Pearl upon signing the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act. Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002. That’s how I’d put it. This is what the president of the United States said:
“Obviously, the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is.”
Now Mr. Obama’s off the prompter, when his silver-tongued rhetoric invariably turns to sludge. But he’s talking about a dead man here, a guy murdered in public for all the world to see. Furthermore, the deceased’s family is standing all around him. Even for a busy president, it’s the work of moments to come up with a sentence that would be respectful, moving and true. Indeed, for Mr. Obama, it’s the work of seconds because he has a taxpayer-funded staff sitting around all day with nothing to do but provide him with that sentence.
Instead, he delivered the one above, which, in its clumsiness and insipidness, is most revealing. First of all, note the passivity: “The loss of Daniel Pearl.” He wasn’t “lost.” He was kidnapped and beheaded. He was murdered on a snuff video. He was specifically targeted, seized as a trophy, a high-value scalp. And the circumstances of his “loss” merit some vigor in the prose. Yet Mr. Obama could muster none.
Even if Americans don’t get the message, the rest of the world does. This week’s pictures of the leaders of Brazil and Turkey clasping hands with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are also monuments to American passivity.
But what did the “loss” of Daniel Pearl mean? Well, says the president, it was “one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination.” Really? Evidently, it never captured Mr. Obama’s imagination, because if it had, he never could have uttered anything so fatuous. He seems literally unable to imagine Pearl’s fate, and so, cruising on autopilot, he reaches for the all-purpose bromides of therapeutic sedation: “one of those moments” - you know, like Princess Di’s wedding, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, whatever - “that captured the world’s imagination.”
Notice how reflexively Mr. Obama lapses into sentimental one-worldism: Despite our many ZIP codes, we are one people, with a single imagination. In fact, the murder of Daniel Pearl teaches just the opposite - that we are many worlds, and worlds within worlds. Some of them don’t even need an “imagination.” Across the planet, the video of an American getting his head sawed off did brisk business in the bazaars and madrassas and Internet downloads. Excited young men e-mailed it to friends, from cell phone to cell phone, from Karachi, Pakistan, to Jakarta, Indonesia, to Khartoum, Sudan, to London to Toronto to Falls Church, Va. In the old days, you needed an “imagination” to conjure the juicy bits of a distant victory over the Great Satan. But in an age of high-tech barbarism, the sight of Pearl’s severed head is a mere click away.
And the rest of “the world”? Most gave a shrug of indifference. And far too many found the reality of Pearl’s death too uncomfortable and chose to take refuge in the same kind of delusional pap as Mr. Obama. The president is only the latest Western liberal to try to hammer Daniel Pearl’s box into a round hole. Before him, it was Michael Winterbottom in his film “A Mighty Heart.” As Pearl’s longtime colleague Asra Nomani wrote, “Danny himself had been cut from his own story.” Or as Paramount’s promotional department put it, “Nominate the most inspiring ordinary hero. Win a trip to the Bahamas!” Where you’re highly unlikely to be kidnapped and beheaded. (Although, in the event that you are, please check the liability-waiver box at the foot of the entry form.)
The latest appropriation is that his “loss” “reminded us of how valuable a free press is.” It was nothing to do with “freedom of the press.” By the standards of the Muslim world, Pakistan has a free-ish and very lively press. The problem is that about 80 percent of its people wish to live under the most extreme form of Shariah, and many of its youth are exported around the world in advance of that aim. The man convicted of Pearl’s murder was Omar Sheikh, a British subject, a London School of Economics student, and, like many jihadists, from Osama bin Laden to the panty bomber, a monument to the peculiar burdens of a non-deprived childhood in the Muslim world. The man who actually did the deed was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who confessed in March 2007: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi.” But Mr. Obama is not the kind to take “guilty” for an answer, so he’s arranging a hugely expensive trial for KSM amid the bright lights of Broadway.
Listen to his killer’s words: “The American Jew Daniel Pearl.” We hit the jackpot. And then we cut his head off. Before the body was found, the Independent’s Robert Fisk offered a familiar argument to Pearl’s kidnappers: Killing him would be “a major blunder … the best way of ensuring that the suffering” - of Kashmiris, Afghans, Palestinians - “goes unrecorded.” Other journalists peddled a similar line: if you release Danny, he’ll be able to tell your story, get your message out, “bridge the misconceptions.” But the story did get out; the severed head is the message; the only misconception is that that’s a misconception.
Daniel Pearl was the prototype victim of a new kind of terror. In his wake came other victims, from Kenneth Bigley, whose last words were, “Tony Blair has not done enough for me,” to Fabrizzio Quattrocchi, who yanked off his hood, yelled “I will show you how an Italian dies,” and ruined the movie for his jihadist videographers. By that time, both men understood what it meant to be in a windowless room with a camera and a man holding a scimitar. But Daniel Pearl was the first, and in his calm, coherent final words, understood why he was there:
“My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California, USA.”
He didn’t have a prompter. But he spoke the truth. That’s all President Obama owed him - to do the same.
I mentioned last week Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s peculiar insistence that “radical Islam” had nothing to do with the Times Square bomber, the panty bomber, the Fort Hood killer. Just a lot of moments “capturing the world’s imagination.” For now, the jihadists seem to have ceased cutting off our heads. Listening to Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, perhaps they’ve figured out there’s nothing much up there anyway.
Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller “America Alone” (Regnery, 2006).