It’s challenging for me to write about things like Donald Trump’s immigration executive order, which has by now gone through so many clarifications and legal challenges that it’s hard to say exactly what it is beyond red meat to his terrified white nationalist base. My instinct is to talk about policy on the merits–in terms of its likely effects, chances of success, that sort of thing–in addition to or sometimes (I have to work on this) instead of talking about its moral ramifications. And the problem with policies like this immigration ban is that to talk about them on the merits is in some sense to legitimize them as rational and even defensibly moral policy choices. George Bush’s torture–er, enhanced interrogation, sorry–program presented a similar choice. Should opponents talk about the fact that torture doesn’t work, or does even allowing that such a discussion could take place cede too much moral ground?
So let’s be clear: there is no moral justification for this policy. The United States, which already takes in far fewer Syrian refugees per capita than considerably poorer countries like Bulgaria, Denmark, Cyprus, and Malta–we prefer, in our capitalist way, to throw money at the problem instead of taking action ourselves–and which already subjects refugees to a screening process so thorough that, of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the US since 9/11, a whopping three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, has now told all people fleeing wars and persecution at home–even those who had already been screened–that they can go to hell for at least the next four months and probably longer. It has told Syrian refugees, people fleeing probably the most dangerous place on earth–one made more dangerous by American policy over the past 15+ years–that they can go to hell and just stay there. Iraqis whose lives are still in danger because they’ve worked with and for American forces in their country over the past 15 years are currently, though the Pentagon is reportedly trying to do something about this, being denied the chance to come to America despite the very real danger they face at home because of America. Iraqis who have literally survived an attempted genocide are being told they’re not welcome here.
Child victims of war are having the door slammed shut in their face by a country that pretends to welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lawful permanent residents of the United States, people whose entire lives, and families, are in this country, have been barred from reentering it–or, at least, they were barred from reentering it until the Department of Homeland Security hastily amended its implementation orders to allow their return. Any time a major policy is implemented and then has to be fundamentally amended a couple of days later, you know you’re dealing with a well thought-out piece of government business. Then there’s the potential constitutional crisis–agents of Trump’s DHS were reportedly refusing to comply with a weekend court order blocking the deportation of travelers with valid visas, and were then reportedly denying detained travelers their right to counsel. Speaking of legal obligations, and with the understanding that–and I know I’m flogging a dead horse here–international law is largely voluntary (at least for the United States), Donald Trump has now put the US in violation of its international obligations toward refugees.
Now, if we were going to have a conversation about the merits of Trump’s order, then that conversation would have to acknowledge that its very premise, the idea that Muslim immigrants are a unique threat to American lives, is false. The notion that immigrants from the seven countries named in the order are particularly dangerous is also false. This is security theater, produced by the decaying wretch who is our new president’s closest advisor/handler, and pitched to appeal to the same people who got Trump elected–people who hate Muslims, hate Middle Easterners, and hate immigrants. They may justify those feelings in the convenient framework of national security, but the truth is that if there were no Islamic terrorism in the world they would simply invent a new justification for their hatred. We could also talk about the fact that this executive order appears to have left America’s diplomatic corps in something approaching a full-scale revolt against its boss.
But that’s assuming we were going to talk about this order on the merits.
There is one point that I think must be made, over and over again, even though it also risks legitimizing this ban as lying within the boundaries of normal policymaking: it will, contrary to its stated intent, almost certainly make the threat posed by terrorism worse:
As for terrorism, the anti-Muslim nature of this order is likely to increase anti-U.S. terrorism rather than decrease it. The order is music to the ears of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other violent groups that portray in their propaganda and recruitment pitches a world engulfed in a war between Islam and a Judeo-Christian West that is led by the United States and is out to persecute Muslims. Persuading other governments, especially in the Muslim world, to cooperate with the United States in the name of counterterrorism will be made more difficult. And Americans will be more, not less, likely to fall victim to terrorism perpetrated by Islamist extremists.
It won’t just do this by alienating majority Muslim countries, but also by making ISIS’s main ideological argument–that Muslims cannot peacefully coexist with the West–for it:
Leaders of the Islamic State speak frequently of their intention to drive a wedge between Western governments and their Muslim populations, and have welcomed outside help — intentional or not — in fulfilling that goal. In a 2015 essay in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq, the group said that its motivation for launching terrorist attacks in Europe was to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that would force ambivalent Muslims to enlist with it.
“Jihadists would have to argue to lengths that Obama, Bush, and others held anti-Islam agendas and hated the religion — not just radical terrorists,” said Rita Katz, founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, a private organization that monitors jihadist websites. “Trump, however, makes that argument a lot easier for them to sell to their followers.”
And by increasing the threat of alienation and radicalization among the Muslim community in the United States:
To examine the ramifications of dehumanization for its targets, we sampled Latino and Muslim residents of the U.S. online and asked them to report how dehumanized they felt by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and Americans in general. Our findings revealed that our samples of Latinos and Muslims felt heavily dehumanized, and that this had important consequences: The more dehumanized they felt, the more likely they were to support violent over nonviolent forms of collective protest, and the less likely they were to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, potentially related to terrorism, to the FBI. Here again, these associations remained even after controlling for feelings of being disliked and for participants’ levels of political conservatism.
When you single out one group as uniquely threatening, as Donald Trump has done, the predictable result is that your supporters will take it upon themselves to attack members of that group. They’ll do it here in the United States and abroad. And so as Trump makes the problem of Islamic terrorism worse, he will also make the problem of anti-Muslim terrorism worse. Things just keep getting uglier.
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