One should never shout fire in a crowded theater. In his panic-stricken response to the horrifying massacre that occurred over the weekend at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Donald Trump has come close to doing just that.
Crises demand a coolness of purpose and language. That is especially so where ISIS-inspired terrorism is concerned. News reports indicate that ISIS is a weakening, not a growing, threat in the Middle East and around the world. The territory it controls in Syria and Iraq is shrinking daily. Its access to money and weapons has been gravely impaired. Indeed, there are credible news reports indicating that ISIS has been forced to execute deserters from its ranks as a last-gasp means of keeping its own adherents from abandoning the cause.
If this is the case, then we should not want to embark on a course of action that will only succeed in reinvigorating a movement that will soon enough collapse. Unfortunately, the proposals Donald Trump advanced in his speech of June 13 will have precisely that effect. Indeed, they will weaken the United States and gravely damage our interests in the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world.
Let us review the steps that Trump has proposed the United States undertake. First, he has reiterated his plan to close down immigration from the Arab Middle East and from other predominantly Islamic nations. Where to begin? Despite Trump's bluster, his proposal is not a show of strength but a declaration of fear and panic. It says to the world that we stand in such abject fear of one of the world's great religions that we shall try to prevent its followers from traveling to or residing within the United States.
The consequences of such a ban would be devastating to America. We are a global nation. Everyday we invite the world to our shores, to do business, to marvel at our nation's beauty, to attend our colleges and universities, and to seek out the world's best medical care. Think of the impact of shutting down travel from Islamic nations. There would be no engineers from Egypt or Jordan. There would be no gifted surgeons from Kuwait or Pakistan. Professors from Indonesia to Tunisia would be forbidden to deliver papers or to exchange ideas with our greatest minds. There would be no eager young students from Malaysia or Qatar. The world works through intellectual, economic, cultural, and social interchange. The Trump ban would cut off the circulation of world talent that makes America great.
We would, in other words, erect castle walls and moats around our nation and hunker down in irrational fear. We must not do that. Americans ought not to live in trembling and trepidation, withdrawn and isolated from the wider world.
Not only would the Trump ban plunge Americans into fear and isolation, it would empower ISIS. ISIS has announced that its purpose is to eliminate the "gray zones," those spheres of coexistence, cooperation, and ambiguity where Muslims living in the West interact on a daily basis with the secular world.
Donald Trump's plan would effectively do ISIS's dirty work for them. He would blow up the gray zones and substitute for them a binary choice: our way, or ISIS's. William McCants of Brookings Institution wrote that ISIS "selected a stark black for [their] flag rather than green, yellow, or white; the color suits their Manichean world view, which permits no gray areas." (ISIS Apocalypse, p. 151). Donald Trump would have us hoist the very same flag of defeat and despair.
This is bad enough but there are yet other destructive elements to Trump's speech that require attention. He called upon Americans to conduct surveillance on one another. "The Muslim community," he stated, "has to work with us." "They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. They know, and they have to do it, and they have to do it forthwith."
Trump should know that most Muslims are like most other Americans. They work hard, pay their taxes, and seek better lives for their children. And, yes, like other Americans they cooperate with law enforcement.
Trump's call for self-surveillance and self-policing has an authoritarian quality to it. Neighborhood vigilantism was a feature of Soviet Communism and of fascists everywhere. Police your neighbors, ferret out their hidden thoughts, and if they harbor forbidden ideas, report them to the authorities.
Does Trump have any idea how such a system can be abused? How such systems have been historically exploited to take petty vengeance on neighbors who just don't quite "fit in?" The tyranny of the neighborhood watch committee has been a staple of oppressive regimes around the world. And now Donald Trump wants to build such a system on shores? I think it is time to question Trump's loyalty. Just how un-American is he?
Trump, finally, would empower gun owners. There is much that was horrifying about his speech, but ask yourselves whether this was not the single most frightening passage: "I will be meeting with the NRA, . . . to discuss how to ensure Americans have the means to protect themselves in this age of terror. I will always be defending the Second Amendment."
And just what would the NRA propose as a solution? Their steady recommendation is to put ever more weapons in the hands of ever more Americans. So, the way to solve gun violence is with more gun violence? We are a nation of guns and gun owners. There are more than 300 million guns in the United States, more guns than there are adults. A depressingly large number of Americans already fetishize their guns. It would make more sense to pass an assault weapons ban. Or would Donald Trump arm us all with AK-47's subsidized by the federal government?
There are yet other aspects of the speech too absurd to merit comment, such as the conspiracy-mongering about President Obama. This is McCarthyism relived as farce.
There is, however, one aspect of his speech which I will refrain from criticizing, and that was his expression of solidarity with the LGBT community. This, after all, is more than many members of his Party have had the courage to say. Paul Ryan (R.-Donor Class), for one, in his statement of June 12, never mentioned that the targets of this heinous attack were gay. As bad as Trump is, Ryan managed to be even more craven.
In truth, this horrific mass murder in Orlando has a depressing familiarity to it. How, really, does Omar Mateen's crime differ from that of the alleged mass murderer Dylann Roof? Roof was motivated by white supremacy. He flew the Confederate flag, he made racist jokes, and visited white supremacist web sites before entering that Charleston church. And while we do not know all the particulars about Mateen's path to mass homicide, I am guessing that there are some resemblances to Dylann Roof's journey.
Omar Mateen is a domestic terrorist, no different than the Charleston church shooter. They each found extremist ideologies that gave them license to act on their darkest impulses. The problem we face, in other words, is that of dealing with domestic terrorists armed with guns. And lamentably, Donald Trump does not even know what to call this crisis.