Hope and pray as we might, it will happen again.
We don’t know when. Or where. Or who the perpetrator — or perpetrators — will be. But if recent past is prologue, we sadly have not seen the last terrorist attack on American soil.
Since the shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., that killed five service members in July 2015, an American community has been targeted roughly every few months by terrorists in some way inspired by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Five months after Chattanooga, 14 were murdered in San Bernardino, Calif. Six months later, 49 were massacred in Orlando. Three months after that, a knife-wielding assailant at a Minnesota mall wounded nine, and a bomber in New York City and New Jersey wounded more than 30. It’s now been five months since an attacker rammed his car into a crowd at Ohio State and began slashing victims, wounding 11.
With the next tragedy, however, there will be a profound difference. For the first time in our history, the president who addresses the nation after a terrorist attack will be an unabashed opportunist who embraces all the rhetorical tools and tricks of the master manipulator that he is. It will be a demagogue’s dream and a uniquely dangerous moment for our democracy.
Demagogues rarely disguise their intentions; they boast of them. So, too, with President Trump. A review of his statements after the domestic attacks of the past two years — as well as attacks overseas — should put us on our guard. As citizens, we’ll need to steel ourselves for the inevitable moment when our president tries to play to our collective fears.
If President Barack Obama was sometimes criticized for seeming to appear too calm or cerebral after terrorist attacks — noting (correctly) that groups like ISIS don’t pose an “existential threat” to the nation — Trump’s first impulse, quite possibly by tweet, may be to actually hype the attack. “Really bad shooting,” he tweeted after the Orlando attack, “many people dead and wounded.” “Horror beyond belief,” he declared after a terrorist plowed a truck into a crowd in Nice, France. And, in Trump’s telling, it will only get worse. “Many others are going to be dying,” he said after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, “they’re sitting in a hospital in many cases waiting to die.”
The terrorists, according to Trump, are a colossus. We face a “global jihad” that wants “to change your religion,” he told a rally after the San Bernardino shooting. “They’re shutting down the world,” he insisted after the attacks in Brussels last year. As he did after the bombings in New York and New Jersey, he may recite a list of attacks, foreign and domestic — “one unthinkable atrocity after another” — including gruesome descriptions of murders and beheadings. America, he’ll warn darkly, as he did in his speech to Congress, risks becoming “a sanctuary for terrorists.”
Culpability, in Trump’s view, will extend far beyond the perpetrator. He’ll likely blame family members, as he did after Chattanooga, when he said that the killer’s “father wasn’t exactly an angel … this is something that maybe goes from the father to the son.” He’ll blame local Muslim Americans, as he did after San Bernardino, when he repeatedly — and falsely — claimed that “many, many” Muslim neighbors saw guns and bombs “all over the apartment” but failed to report it to police.
Trump will almost surely once again blame the Muslim American community as a whole, which he has accused of harboring “great hatred” for the United States. “It’s their fault,” he has said, because Muslim Americans are “not helping us.” In reality, a number of suspected terrorists have been arrested over the years thanks to leads from law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans. If Trump continues to engage in this demagoguery after the next attack, hate crimes against Muslim Americans will likely surge again — and responsibility for that violence will rest in no small part with the president himself.
Trump may claim credit for having foreseen the attack, as he did after Orlando, when he tweeted, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” Another danger is that he’ll be so eager to point to any incident as justification for his own policies that he’ll rush to label an incident as terrorism before law enforcement even has the facts. “It looks like another terrorist attack,” he said of last week’s shooting of police officers in Paris — before French authorities had even stated whether they were investigating it as terrorism. “It just never ends,” he added, “and I’ve been saying it for a long time.” Friday morning, he almost seemed to relish that the attack could “have a big effect” on the French presidential election.
Pointing to his supposed prescience, he’ll seek to position himself — as all authoritarians do — as the only safeguard against the “evil” that is “pouring into” the country. In one respect, he’s already laid the groundwork. The “so-called” judge who first blocked his ban on visitors and immigrants from certain Muslim countries, Trump tweeted, “put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.”
If a future attacker is a refugee — like the assailant at Ohio State was — Trump will argue that he “should not have been in our country” in the first place. Even if the killer is an American citizen, born and raised here — like the shooter in Orlando — Trump will point to his immigrant parents “because we allowed his family to come here.” After all, Trump claims the real problem is the “Trojan horse” of Muslim immigrants themselves because of “their likelihood of being recruited into the terror cause at some later date, which is going to happen in many, many cases” — another assertion without any evidence.
Most ominously, Trump and his administration will almost certainly use the next attack as the casus belli for new, harsher measures in its war against “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he said after the attack on a Berlin Christmas market “continually slaughter Christians,” echoing terrorist propaganda that portrays this struggle as an escalating fight between religions and civilizations. “This is just the beginning,” he has said repeatedly, “we have to fight fire with fire,” and the next attack will give him the stage upon which to make his case.
While Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has apparently convinced the president to give up on the idea of waterboarding suspected terrorists, what about other aggressive interrogation techniques? Trump has said we need to “expand our laws so that we could do certain things.” Increased surveillance of mosques? “We have no choice,” he has said, “because something is happening in there.” A database to track Muslim immigrants and refugees already in the country? “A watch list,” he has said, “is fine.” A willingness to tolerate increased civilian casualties when targeting terrorists in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia? “We have to fight so viciously and violently,” he said after last year’s attack on the Istanbul airport.
And what if Congress, the courts and the American people oppose his moves? Trump will frame the future as a stark choice between his way or an American apocalypse. “If we don’t get tough,” he predicted after Orlando, “we’re not going to have our country anymore. There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.” So much for summoning American resilience and resolve in the face of terror.
At that moment, science tells us, Trump will have a powerful ally — our own brains. Thanks to millions of years of human evolution, when confronted with a threat, we’re hard-wired to react first and think later. Fear is “very easy to trigger and hard to turn off,” explains Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience at New York University, “in order to think logically and make decision based on facts, we have to get past our non-thinking brain.”
But how? “Awareness of being in this physical state,” says LeDoux, “can serve as a cue to engage in a cognitive state.” In other words, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Knowing in advance how Trump will try to manipulate our emotions after another attack better equips us to resist his attempts to exploit our fears.
And when he does, it will be essential to remember basic facts. Since the 9/11 attacks, 95 people have been killed in the United States in terrorist attacks committed by about a dozen individuals apparently inspired in part by al-Qaeda or ISIS, according to the New America Foundation. Every single one of those 95 deaths is a tragedy. At the same time, every attacker responsible for those 95 domestic deaths was an American citizen or a lawful resident. And not a single American has been killed in a terrorist attack inside the United States by an individual from the Muslim countries included in his travel ban.
A dozen attacks over 15 years does not make the United States “a sanctuary for terrorists.” Over roughly the same time period, by comparison, gun violence has killed more than 400,000 Americans — “one unthinkable atrocity after another” about which Trump says little.
The next attack on U.S. soil will be frightening enough. As a nation, we’ll grieve the loss of innocent fellow Americans. After nearly two years of reckless tweets and hate-filled tirades, we also now know what will likely come next. When Trump steps before the cameras and addresses the nation, his words will be his own; his “passions and prejudices,” as Alexander Hamilton warned us about so long ago, on display for all the world to see.
But demagogues only succeed when their audiences surrender their agency over their own minds and hearts; when we allow the heated emotions of the moment to overwhelm the facts and enduring values we know to be true. We’ve been put on guard. Whether we succumb to Trump’s fearmongering or rise above it is entirely up to us.