Historians analyze presidential rhetoric about extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump as well as President Joe Biden all ordered the extrajudicial executions of individuals labeled as terrorists. But there were distinct ways that the commanders in chief informed the American public of their successful strikes. On Friday, National Public Radio spoke with historians and experts about what each man's magniloquence – or lack thereof – revealed about their personalities and leadership styles.
"This week, Biden announced that the US had killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend," NPR recalled. "In 2019, Trump revealed that the US killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And in 2011, Obama shared with the American people that Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, was killed."
Thomas Schwartz is a professor of history, political science, and European studies at Vanderbilt University. He explained to NPR that while Obama, Trump, and Biden have vastly different personalities, their messaging was unified on multiple fronts.
Boasting about the death of a person is "a little bloodthirsty," Schwartz said. "But they do recognize that there's a domestic political gain from taking out terrorist leaders, and they want to claim it."
Schwartz noted that "underneath it all are presidents trying to justify themselves politically and gain something politically," Schwartz said. "So I think our comparison on that level is probably justified even if, on stylistic things, it also reminds people what they liked and didn't like about various presidents."
Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, remarked that Obama's speech following bin Laden's demise was "an extraordinary historic moment and something that in a way looms larger than the other two" because of the visceral emotions attached to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Schwartz agreed, adding that "there's no question that watching Obama, you got reminded of how deliberative and almost academic his style could be in discussing things."
It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history.
And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child's embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.
Biden shared Obama's subdued, matter-of-factness in his address after al-Zawahiri was neutralized:
He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats, and American interests. And since the United States delivered justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, Zawahiri has been a leader of al Qaeda — the leader.
Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more
Trump's approach, however, was wildly dissimilar and "a window into a lot of things," O'Mara said. "In kind of a very blunt way, it's a window into how Trump was such a very different president — and not just different from the two men who were on either side of him, but modern presidents generally. If you dial back and look at presidential oratory of presidents of both parties, it's very different in terms of not only the tone, but what type of information is being relayed."
Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and professor at Texas A&M University, pointed out that "one of the things that was very noteworthy about Trump's presidential rhetoric was that he claimed to not want to use it, he said that he didn't want to be presidential. He thought that presidential [style] was boring and lame and he thought that he won the office of the presidency by being dynamic and interesting. And so that's, I think, very clearly reflected."
Indeed, Trump focused on dramatic embellishment:
No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi's fighters and companions were killed with him. He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.
The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.
Trump also whined about not getting credit for the operation, referred to Al-Baghdadi as a "sick and depraved man," and gloated that he "died like a dog."
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