In two months on the job, Janet Napolitano, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, has won the war on terror. How? By defining it away. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, she refers to her remarks at her own confirmation hearings in January:

In my speech, although I did not use the word “terrorism,” I referred to “man-caused” disasters.

No one paid much attention to this at the time, but she meant something by it. As she told her German audience, it is “only a nuance,” but it is a “move away from the politics of fear.”

It’s also a move into the realm where words, not actions, matter. Disasters happen. Terrorism has political motives. It is not a disaster: it is an attack. It is rational to be fearful if someone says they want to destroy you, especially if they have repeatedly attacked you. And it’s curious for the Obama administration, which used the public’s fear of a depression as a tool to sell the so-called stimulus bill, to say it wants to move away from the “politics of fear.”

Napolitano’s remarks later in her interview are also worrying. At the prompting of the interviewer, she explains that part of the job of DHS is to pursue a policy of counter-radicalization. And how is this to be done? It’s the responsibility of a group “within my agency, the civil liberties group.” The implication of this statement is that the U.S. needs only preserve its civil liberties to prevent the rise of domestic Islamic radicalism.

There are certainly places in the world that do not respect the civil liberties of Muslims (or anyone else, for that matter): the tyrannical regimes of the Middle East. Not coincidentally, that is where Islamic radicalism was born. All Americans will agree with Secretary Napolitano in her staunch support for civil liberties. But they will also expect her to be as staunch in her determination to protect the United States from its external enemies, and to understand that Islamist terrorism is not a disaster: it is a threat with deep and foreign ideological roots.