The New York Attack, Trump’s Outbursts, and Misconceptions About Terrorism

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by Paul R. Pillar

Donald Trump’s tweets in response to the terrorist attack along a bike path in Manhattan demonstrated some of what we already knew all too well about the president, but they also reflected more widely shared and counterproductive American ways of thinking about counterterrorism. Among the Trumpian habits exhibited is the inclination to use any occasion, no matter how solemn or tragic, to excoriate or smear political opponents. In this case, instead of expressing solidarity with all citizens of his native New York City, Trump assailed Senator Chuck Schumer for sponsorship of a 27-year-old visa program that had bipartisan support and under which the Uzbek perpetrator of this week’s attack had entered the United States.

Whatever “extreme vetting” Trump may have in mind for governing legal immigration, it is unlikely it would have eliminated the offender in the Manhattan incident, Sayfullo Saipov. When he came to the United States in 2010, Saipov was a hotel accountant showing no radical or violent streak. It evidently was only after living in the United States and experiencing disappointment in finding desired employment that Saipov evolved into an extremist who, according to those who knew him, became heated when he discussed American policies toward Israel.

Saipov’s Uzbek origin also highlights how disconnected from actual patterns of terrorist threat have been the various versions of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. The arbitrary list of countries has never included Uzbekistan. Perhaps Central Asia is just too far removed, compared to the Middle East, from the preoccupations and prejudices that underlay the devising of the ban for it to have made the cut.

Trump also quickly maligned the U.S. criminal justice system as a “joke” and “laughingstock” and called for the suspect to be sent to the military detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba. Such a blurt reflected complete ignorance of what has and has not worked in bringing terrorists to justice. Trump’s later backing away from his statement about using Guantanamo must have come from aides confronting him with how far his comment was removed from reality. Civilian federal courts have proven to be efficient and effective as well as fair in handling terrorism cases. According to Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at the University of Texas, prosecution of terrorist cases in those courts has resulted in more than 600 convictions since 2001 with almost no reversals upon appeal. The Southern District of New York, which presumably would be the venue for a trial of Saipov, has an especially long and impressive record of handling even the most sensitive and difficult terrorism cases.

In contrast, the military tribunal system at Guantanamo is still having trouble getting its act together after years of fits and starts. This very week, a trial there of accused perpetrators of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 was thrown into disarray amid a dispute over legal representation of the defendants. This spectacle featured an Air Force colonel (the trial judge) sentencing a Marine Corps brigadier general (the head of legal defense at Guantanamo) to 21 days confinement and a $1,000 fine for refusing to obey an order of the judge regarding configuration of the defense team. The brigadier general—John Baker, the second-highest ranking lawyer in the Marine Corps—has been unsparing in his own criticism of the tribunal process at Guantanamo. Last year he said, “Put simply, the military commissions in their current state are a farce. Instead of being a beacon for the rule of law, the Guantanamo Bay military commissions have been characterized by delay, government misconduct and incompetence, and even more delay.”

As is true of so many other rhetorical excesses of Donald Trump, his latest comments play to misconceptions and prejudices that had already gained wider currency—which is why, of course, Trump uses such rhetoric and why it was effective enough to win him the presidency. (Trump was not the only political figure who spoke favorably about sending Saipov to Guantanamo; so did Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).) The principal misconceptions and prejudices involving terrorism to which Trump’s rhetoric about the New York attack appeals include the following.

One is the notion that terrorist violence against Americans is overwhelmingly a problem with foreigners and not with other Americans. This has led to the conflation of immigration issues with counterterrorism issues, added respectability to a preoccupation with building walls, and diverted attention and resources from security measures that are not border security measures.

A related notion is that terrorism is overwhelmingly a problem with certain foreigners, and especially Muslim ones. This does not square with the pattern of violence, and of political violence, in the United States since 9/11.

A further notion is that terrorism is a problem with a fixed set of bad guys, the elimination or exclusion of which would solve the problem. This ignores how once-peaceful people like Saipov can come to adopt extreme tactics such as political violence. It also ignores the issues and grievances that may lead people to make that transition.

A broad, underlying misconception inheres in the “war on terror” label, with everything that implies regarding the militarization of counterterrorism. This not only leads to anomalies, such as colonels trying to order around generals in attempting to put justice into a military framework when it does not fit. It also has led to military expeditions overseas that have stoked anti-U.S. terrorism more than they have diminished it, through the knock-on effects of collateral damage and perceived affronts to someone else’s homeland.

Photo: Sayfullo Saipov

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).

One Comment

  1. Only innocents have been sent to Gitmo for abject punishment, where the Pentagon has refused a Supreme Court order to impose criminal justice because there is no evidence. The US justice system does require evidence (often fabricated, but that’s another story) so yes, where there is evidence then the “nation of laws” moniker can apply.
    Regarding terrorist motivation, issues and grievances, psychologists have been shy in taking up the subject so we don’t have much to go on regarding what ought to be an essential study. We could use a Paul Pillar analysis of that.
    Regarding ” the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban” it never was a Muslim ban it was a temporary stay of visitors from an Obama-era list of countries to allow a strengthening of regulations. The countries on the list are mainly countries the US is at war with which are Muslim. It was not a blanket action on Muslims as implied — the largest Muslim countries (Indonesia, India and Pakistan) were not affected. Open borders for citizens the US is at war with has never been allowed; quite the opposite is true.

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