It is a ritual that has become all too familiar. A gunman claiming to act on behalf of Islam, or ISIS, or simply shouting “Allahu Akbar” murders numerous people. President Obama condemns the atrocity as workplace violence, extremist violence, or even terrorism, but studiously avoids using the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” or “jihad.” It then becomes a deeply partisan issue as conservative politicians and other commentators point this out, and argue that his failure to name radical Islamic terrorism for what it is reflects a fundamental failure of his policy for dealing with it. If he cannot even name it, he will never defeat it. Indeed, the whole matter has played out most sharply in the recent exchanges between Obama, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton after the tragic shooting in Orlando.
But does it really matter? Does this dispute identify a substantive issue, or is it useless wrangling over words or nothing more than a game of political ping-pong?