Sunday night, I addressed the nation from the Oval Office on my top priority as President: Keeping the American people safe.
It weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of all of us in the wake of the terrible tragedy in San Bernardino. Fourteen Americans — dads, moms, daughters, sons — were taken from us as they came together to celebrate the holidays. Each of them a public servant. All of them a part of our American family.
The FBI is still gathering the facts about what happened in San Bernardino, but here is what we know. We have no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organization overseas, or that they were part of a broader conspiracy here at home. But it is clear that these killers had embraced a perversion of Islam, stockpiled assault weapons, and committed an act of terrorism.
Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Since then, we’ve hardened our defenses. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have disrupted countless plots and worked around the clock to keep us safe. Our military and counter-terrorism professionals have relentlessly pursued terrorist networks overseas — disrupting safe havens, killing Osama bin Laden, and decimating al Qaeda’s leadership.
But over the last few years, the threat has evolved as terrorists have turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all-too common in our society. For the past seven years, I have confronted the evolution of this threat each morning. Your security is my greatest responsibility. And I know that, after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.
So, tonight, this is what I want you to know: The threat of terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Here’s how:
First, our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary, using air strikes to take out ISIL leaders and their infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies – France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.
Second, we will continue to provide training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens. In both countries, we are deploying Special Operations forces who can accelerate that offensive.
Third, we are leading a coalition of 65 countries to stop ISIL’s operations by disrupting plots, cutting off their financing, and preventing them from recruiting more fighters.
Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has established a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian civil war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL.
That is our strategy — designed and supported by military commanders, counter-terrorism experts, and countries committed to defeating these terrorists. And we constantly examine further steps needed to get the job done. That is why I have ordered the Departments of State and Homeland Security to review the visa program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country. And that is why I will urge high tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.
Here at home, we can do more together to immediately address this challenge.
To start, Congress should act to make sure that no one on a No Fly List is able to buy a gun. What possible argument can be made for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security. I know there are some who reject any gun safety measure, but no matter how effective our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, we cannot identify every would-be mass shooter. What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill.
Next, we should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can know if they’ve traveled to war zones. And finally, if Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, then it should vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.
This is what we should do. But I’d like to also say a word about what we should not do.
We should not be drawn once again into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. We also cannot turn against one another by letting this fight become a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, and account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world who reject their hateful ideology.
If we are to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as our strongest allies in rooting out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization. It is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It is our responsibility to reject language that encourages suspicion or hate. Because that kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values, plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. We have to remember that.
I am confident America will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history. Even as we debate our differences, let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional: We were founded upon a belief in human dignity — the idea that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.
Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear. That we have always met challenges — whether war or depression; natural disasters or terrorist attacks — by coming together around our common ideals. As long as we stay true to who we are, then I have no doubt that America will prevail.
President Barack Obama