After the Brussels murders, and the Paris murders, and the San Bernardino murders and dozens of previous, tragic iterations of innocent blood on the sidewalk, the two leading Republican candidates for president propose to finally get tough on terrorism.
In Ted Cruz’s view, the United States is “voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we are.” He would have us “carpet bomb” the Islamic State and “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized” here at home.
“Look,” says Donald Trump, “we’re having problems with the Muslims.” He would “knock the hell out of ISIS,” close the border to Muslim immigrants “until we figure out what’s going on,” “do a lot more than waterboarding” and target the families of terrorists (at least until he seemed to backpedal).
The argument Cruz and Trump advance is straightforward. Out of an excess of political correctness, the United States has not recognized and confronted the Islamic nature and motivation of terrorism. This, according to the candidates, has hamstrung U.S. law enforcement, counterterrorism and border-control efforts, which should include the heightened scrutiny of Muslims. The migration of Muslims presents a particular, Trojan-horse threat, illustrated by the European experience of segregation and radicalization. “This all happened,” argues Trump, “because frankly there is no assimilation.”
The emotional urgency of the Republican front-runners is understandable, particularly in light of President Obama’s underreaction — a statement about the Brussels attacks of less than a minute, followed by some Cuban baseball. The terrorists — who worship death, fashion bombs out of young men and women, and exploit Islam for totalitarian political purposes — deserve our outrage.
But here is the problem. Rhetoric that targets “the Muslims” and singles out Americans for suspicion based on nothing more than their faith seriously complicates the war against terrorism, for these reasons:
First, anti-Muslim rhetoric strains relations with Sunni Muslim countries, which we are trying to persuade to do more to combat the Islamic State. “The leadership of these countries,” former acting CIA director Mike Morell told me, “understand American politics enough to know that, for now, this is just rhetoric. But their publics do not get that. And it is the perception that acts to limit what these nations can do overtly to support the U.S.”
Second, it amplifies Islamic State propaganda that the West is conducting a religious war against the “caliphate,” which is a source of terrorist morale. “It certainly feeds extremist recruitment,” says Morell, “but it also makes even moderate Muslims wonder if the extremists may be right.”
Third, anti-Muslim rhetoric needlessly disrupts relationships with American Muslim communities that are often the first to recognize and report radicalization in their midst. “From the perspective of American Muslims,” according to former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, “the rhetoric creates a sense of alienation from their fellow citizens and makes them more susceptible to the [Islamic State] argument that they have no real place in American society — and that their true ‘home’ is in the caliphate.”
In a sense, Trump is right. Assimilation is the key. But by what possible theory of assimilation should the United States declare Islam to be inconsistent with its ideals?
If our objective were to replicate Europe’s dangerous social segregation, what would we do? Maybe conduct the war against terrorism through war crimes, screen for Muslims at the airport (by some mechanism that escapes me), declare the Muslim faith a target of heightened suspicion, occupy Muslim neighborhoods with a heavy-handed police presence, and encourage anti-Muslim attitudes that could easily devolve into hate crimes and violence.
It is no mystery how resented people become resentful. “This ugly rhetoric risks stoking the kind of alienation here that we have seen in some European Muslim communities,” former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff told me.
There is room to strengthen the U.S. immigration system in light of terrorist threats — to tighten the visa and passenger-list systems, and to ensure FBI access to information on the smartphones of terrorists. “But let’s not forget [that] what makes us vulnerable,” says Peter Feaver, a former adviser at the National Security Council, “is not the presence of immigrants in our midst. Rather what makes us vulnerable is the degree of alienation within any community, including immigrants.”
Alienating Muslim allies, scapegoating Muslim citizens and resigning ourselves to a global religious conflict would grant the terrorists a victory without a battle. Which makes Trump and Cruz either quite cynical or alarmingly oblivious.