When silence isn't golden

By Eric Ham - The Hill
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member of Defense & Foreign Policy

I can remember many times as a young kid when my mother would give the "Silence is Golden" cough medicine when fighting a cold. It usually worked, and proved in that situation that silence was golden. But in the aftermath of the Paris killings, many are learning that silence is anything but that.

After the Paris attacks that left 17 dead, including journalists and police officers, there was a strong display of solidarity against violent extremism. The world came together to march for peace. That togetherness was exemplified with leaders from Europe, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and other parts of the world standing arm-in-arm on the streets of the capital. Millions more from across France were there in spirit, all to show strength against evil's unspeakable violence.

While much of the attention has been focused on the al Qaeda operatives in Paris, other networks have been busy doing evil too. In Nigeria, Boko Haram recently killed more than 2,000 people, mostly women and children. Extremists in Yemen continued their reign of terror, killing more than 30 people recently. Despite this evil-doing by jihadists, people in France, along with citizens and world leaders, took a stand — a rare, monumental stand. Where else have you ever witnessed longtime rivals Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walking together in solidarity? (Maybe there is hope for the Middle East.)

But there was a noticeable absence. The United States of America.

As the world took a stand, to the surprise of many the United States was silent, only sending its ambassador to the march. Granted, the U.S. has been working behind the scenes with its allies, including its oldest ally — France — to fight terror. But the symbolism of that moment was more powerful than any army or munitions. It showed terrorists' bullets will not prevail over the resolve of the people of good will.

We cannot forget that on 9/11, when America lost more than 3,000 lives, that the world stood shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. In fact, then-French President Jacques Chirac was the first world leader to visit the U.S. in its dark hour of despair and grief.

During a joint appearance with President George W. Bush, Chirac said that "we are absolutely determined to fight, with all the efficacy it takes, against this new type of absolute evil ... which is terrorism ... and that France is ready to consider every means that can be employed to make this fight against terrorism effective so that this evil of our times is truly eradicated."

Six years later, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Chirac's successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, said: "Friends may have differences; they may have disagreements; they may have disputes. But in times of difficulty, in times of hardship, friends stand together, side by side; they support each other; and help one another. In times of difficulty, in times of hardship, America and France have always stood side by side, supported one another, helped one another, fought for each other's freedom."

Make no mistake — around the globe, America is still a shining beacon of freedom and prosperity. It is still the land of the free and the home of the brave to so many nations who long for a taste of what makes America, America. That is why the absence of a higher-level American official at the Paris march was so jarring. Even the absence of any official U.S. presence at the Washington march that occurred simultaneously was mystifying. When you are absent, you cannot foment change. You are muted. You are silent.

Through its absence, the United States was silent.

A great American named Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

As this multi-headed hydra of terrorism continues to exact carnage and wreckage on innocent lives, including Americans, President Obama cannot remain silent.

That kind of silence speaks volumes and it is not golden.

Ham is a political and national security analyst and co-chair of the Fragile State Strategy Group in Washington. He is co-author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding.

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commented 2015-01-28 10:44:22 -0700 · Flag
Had the staff of Charlie Hebdo observed a prudent silence, this commentary would not exist; no tragedy would have take place. The right to free speech is sacred; the ability to discern how to wisely make use of it is golden.