After President Obama addressed the nation Sunday night about the terror attack that killed 14 people last week in San Bernadino, California, some Mainers who heard the speech were left with starkly divergent ideas about how the U.S. should move forward.

In the 14-minute address from the Oval Office, Obama struck a measured tone as he sought to reassure Americans that the United States was doing all it could to stem terrorist attacks, while urging Congress to act on a handful of priorities and asking citizens not to give in to fear and divisiveness.

“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said.

Among the thousands listening in Maine and who spoke to the Portland Press Herald after Obama’s speech were a recent immigrant from war-torn Iraq, a Christian faith leader, a retired Navy commander and a former legislator and gun-rights advocate.

The Rev. Marvin Ellison of Portland, a Presbyterian minister and retired ethics professor, expressed appreciation for Obama’s clarity in separating the issue of terrorism from the religion of Islam.

What deeply troubled him, however, was the president’s continued reliance on a military solution to terrorism, guaranteeing that violence against America will be met with more violence, he said.

“I say this as a faith leader: The biblical insight is if you want peace, then work for justice,” Ellison said. “Correct the conditions that have created harm and disruption, and that includes addressing this major challenge of the distorted distribution of extreme wealth and extreme misery around the world and increasingly in the U.S.”

Ellison would have also preferred Obama pursue more vigorously stronger legislation to curtail the mass availability of firearms in the U.S. – an idea that was touched on only briefly Sunday night by the president.

But the idea of gun control to stem violent acts did not ring true or logical to David Trahan, a former Maine legislator and current executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Trahan said he was looking for Obama to outline a clear, actionable plan in the speech for the nation’s domestic security, much as the U.S. reacted following the frequent hijackings of international flights in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to airport security measures that stood largely unchanged until the attacks of Sept. 11.

He was disappointed with the amount of time Obama spent on international tactics, not domestic security.

“I think that’s what Americans are afraid of, being struck on American soil,” Trahan said. “I wanted to hear from the president what his plans were to prevent threats of terrorism. So I think he missed a great opportunity.”

Trahan dismissed calls for more regulation of firearms, and said that since mass shootings often occur in so-called “gun-free zones,” leaders should beef up security where Americans are not allowed to carry weapons.

“Instead of talking about all the new gun control laws you’re going to create, we should be talking about how we’re going to make those areas safe, like we did in our airports,” said Trahan, of Waldoboro. “I want to see some policy. I want to see a plan. I wanted him to shake his fist and say, ‘This was horrible, and we’re not going to put up with it, and this is what we’re going to do to make it stop.'”

Less concerned about domestic security than he was about overall anti-terrorism strategy was Ali Al Mashakheel, 39, of Portland, who lived in Baghdad and worked as a journalist there until 2014, when he fled to the United States, and then came to Maine.

Today, he speaks out against Islamaphobia and discriminatory thinking in the age of terrorism, including at a rally Sunday night that drew a few hundred people to Monument Square in Portland.

“I never blame the people who are afraid,” Al Mashakheel said. “But fear should not lead us. One of the problems in the Middle East is the politics of fear. That’s what’s happening – the politics of fear is igniting violence. America is a smart nation. Fear should not make (Americans) judge people.”

The same fear, he said, can lead to hurtful or misguided interpretations of Islam by Americans who have little experience with actual Muslims. He urged that Americans learn about the religion before demonizing its followers.

“I’m afraid for my kids. I’m like them, I’m a Muslim, I’m an Iraqi,” he said. “I call upon Mainers to look to their neighbors, to their friends to their co-workers, as the president said, and look at them, talk to them.”

Alex Carr, a retired Navy commander who taught military operational strategy at the Military Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, said Obama’s remarks struck him as political and perhaps too vague.

Carr, who lives in North Yarmouth and is chairman of the Board of Selectmen there, said he appreciated that Obama was quick to call the attack in San Bernadino the work of terrorists – which seemed to him a lesson learned after the attacks in 2012 on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which the administration at first attributed to protesters before finally acknowledging the coordinated nature of the attack.

What Obama called strategy Sunday night was also a misnomer, Carr said. Working with allies in the Middle East, arming forces that oppose Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and continuing an aerial assault in Syria are tactics, he said.

“That’s not really strategy, and I know he knows that,” Carr said. “If he was really talking strategy, he’d mention Russia, Saudi Arabia, perhaps Israel.”

Carr was also critical of Obama’s open reluctance to commit significant ground troops to another extended war, like the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003.

“I would never play that card publicly,” Carr said. “We always hold that card in reserve, that you can deploy ground forces.”

Carr said he believes the president may have done better to focus on the values issue – perhaps challenging the nation to accept more Syrian refugees, or emphasizing a greater acceptance of Muslim-Americans.

“You hate to downplay a few terrorist acts, but we’re not quite like France, and we’re certainly not like the Middle East. We’re not like Israel where we need to have (the) National Guard in the streets,” he said. “I personally think the best things he could have done is focus on the values issues. The last thing we want is to have a singling out of certain categories of people in this nation.”


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