by Robert E. Hunter
President Donald J. Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United States by people from seven Muslim countries did not spring, like Athena, fully armored from the forehead of Zeus. It is a direct descendent of the difficulties the United States has had in dealing with the threat from terrorism since September 11, 2001.
Responsibility for what President Trump has just done is widely shared. Beyond whatever his own motives may be, most responsibility lies with the almost universally shared American expectation to be protected against all attacks from abroad, of whatever magnitude and from whatever source. September 11, after all, was the first time since August 1814 that the United States had been attacked from abroad in the Lower 48 (save for some forays into the US by Pancho Villa, some German submarines sinking ships off our coasts, and some Japanese balloon-borne bombs in the upper Northwest during World War II).
To be sure, during the Cold War, Americans were conditioned to expect that a nuclear war could result in many millions dead in the United States, but of course it never happened. Thus the 9/11 shock to the national psyche was profound: at the time, I called it a WMPD—a weapon of mass psychological disruption.
Responding to 9/11
America’s unique position among the world’s great powers of having been free of foreign invasion for more than 200 years is a major factor in conditioning our expectations about our special place in the world. Since 9/11, American media have also played their major, continuous, and indispensable part, inflating every incidence of supposed or suspected terrorism, either here or abroad, and devoting long hours of television and cable coverage and analysis and miles of column inches in print.
Ironically, these unwarranted expectations of total safety and the U.S. media’s pursuit of the almighty dollar have done more than Osama bin Laden could ever have hoped to provoke an outsized fear of terrorism and, consequently, outsized and in some cases self-destructive responses by U.S. leaders.
Immediately after 9/11, the United States needed to respond to the enormity of what had been done, and did so vigorously by invading Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorists had been trained (though U.S. forces did not invade Saudi Arabia, from which 19 of the terrorists hailed). But it was not self-evident then and certainly not later that the president and Congress had to go as far as they did in crafting the USA Patriot Act, which, among other things, made the most serious inroads into American civil liberties since the reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Americans now also go through screening procedures in entering public and many not-so-public buildings and on getting on aircraft. Has that kept the country safe from further foreign-sponsored terrorism? It’s hard to know, but many of these requirements are just inconveniences, little more. Intrusions into private lives by US intelligence agencies are another matter, and U.S. society has still not sorted out the balance of equities.
The same prophylactic quality can also be ascribed to US programs to disrupt terrorist plots emanating from abroad, notably to seek out and kill Islamist terrorists (especially with drone attacks and special forces). Again, it’s impossible to know what would have happened if these programs had not been pursued—except that they have clearly not failed. There’s been virtually no terrorism on U.S. shores, and most of what has taken place has been home-grown. Some has been inspired from abroad, but almost all by Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia, which its citizens promote abroad (especially now in Africa), and which is at the root of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Notably, however, citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that adhere to Wahhabism—and thus must share responsibility for terrorism across the Middle East and beyond—are not part of the ban. Iranians, by contrast, are on the list, even though there has not been a single Iranian-sponsored terrorist attack in the United States. Perhaps, like President George W. Bush’s adding Iran to his “axis of evil,” this was done for other reasons, notably competitions for power in the Middle East and the desire of US partners, notably Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (again), to prevent any improvement in US-Iranian relations.
The Purpose of the Ban
President Trump’s executive order cannot be of much importance to his political base and thus of consequence to his political future. It’s not like efforts to reinforce the Second Amendment on gun ownership, to overturn Roe vs. Wade so as to ban abortions, or to help create jobs or offset globalization’s ill effects on many Americans, particularly those in the Rust Belt that gave him his margin of victory in the presidential election. Islamist terrorism is not a trade issue; it’s also not about immigration from Latin America or building a wall with Mexico. Further, it’s not as though the United States is facing a major threat from a well-armed and aggressive foreign power, which led to the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942 and the hunt for communists supposedly loyal to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Even to the extent that the United States could face the threat of a repeat of 9/11 or other Islamist terrorism (against which stupendous efforts have been taken), the banning of travel to the United States by all nationals but Green Card holders of these seven majority-Muslim states is surely overkill—and would be unlikely to stop a determined “lone wolf” terrorist. The damage the president has already done to more than two centuries of America’s reputation with one stroke of his pen is the equivalent of the oft-quoted line from the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
It is thus hard not to see this executive order except as primarily an effort both to have a hostile “other” to cite in justifying radical policies and to appeal to some supposedly deep-seated set of prejudices, especially against Muslims as a whole, that the president must believe inhabits some dark corner of the American soul. But he has had his response: an outpouring of opposition to the executive order not just from people and their families who could be directly affected, but also from thousands of American citizens determined not to give into manipulation of fear by people in positions of great power—including the president of the United States.
Photo of DC protest against travel ban by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr.