There’s been lots of attention-grabbing opposition to Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order, from demonstrations to court orders. But polls make it clear public opinion is much more mixed. Standard phone polls show small majorities opposed, while web and automated polls find small majorities continue to support it.
What surprises me about the poll results isn’t that lots of Americans like the ban — but that so many Americans don’t. Regular people have lives to lead and can’t investigate complicated issues in detail. Instead they usually take their cues from leaders they trust. And given what politicians across the U.S. political spectrum say about terrorism, Trump’s executive order makes perfect sense. There are literally no national-level American politicians telling a story that would help ordinary people understand why Trump’s goals are both horrendously counterproductive and morally vile.
Think of it this way:
On February 13, 1991 during the first Gulf War, the U.S. dropped two laser-guided bombs on the Amiriyah public air raid shelter in Baghdad. More than 400 Iraqi civilians were incinerated or boiled alive. For years afterward visitors to a memorial there would meet a woman with eight children who had died during the bombing; she was living in the ruined shelter because she could not bear to be anywhere else.
Now, imagine that immediately after the bombing Saddam Hussein had delivered a speech on Iraqi TV in which he plaintively asked “Why do they hate us?” — without ever mentioning the fact that Iraq was occupying Kuwait. And even Saddam’s political opponents would only mumble that “this is a complicated issue.” And most Iraqis had no idea that their country had invaded Kuwait, and that there were extensive United Nation resolutions and speeches by George H.W. Bush explaining the U.S.-led coalition’s rationale for attacking Iraq in response. And that the few Iraqis who suggested there might be some kind of relationship between Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the Amiriyah bombing were shouted down by politicians saying these Iraq-hating radicals obviously believed that America’s slaughter of 400 people was justified.
If that had happened, we’d immediately recognize that Iraqi political culture was completely insane, and that it would cause them to behave in dangerously nutty ways. But that’s exactly what U.S. political culture is like.
In an interview last March with Anderson Cooper, Donald Trump tried to puzzle out what’s behind the terrorism directed at the U.S. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump learnedly opined. “There’s a tremendous hatred there, we’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”
“In Islam itself?” asked Cooper. Trump responded, “You’re going to have to figure that out. You’ll get another Pulitzer.”
During Trump’s speech at the CIA right after his inauguration, he expressed the same bewilderment. “Radical Islamic terrorism,” pondered Trump. “This is something nobody can even understand.”
John F. Kelly, now Trump’s head of the Department of Homeland Security, is similarly perplexed, saying in a 2013 speech that “I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction.”
Say what you want about the tenets of this worldview, but at least it’s an internally consistent ethos: We’re surrounded by lunatics who want to murder us for reasons that are totally inscrutable to rational people like us but … obviously have something to do with them being Muslims.
Meanwhile, in private, the non-crazy members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment aren’t confused at all. They understand quite well that Islamist terrorism is almost wholly blowback from the foreign policy they’ve designed.
Meanwhile, in private, the non-crazy members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment aren’t confused at all.
Richard Shultz, a professor at Tufts whose career has long been intertwined with the national security state, has written that “A very senior [Special Operations Forces] officer who had served on the Joint Staff in the 1990s told me that more than once he heard terrorist strikes characterized as ‘a small price to pay for being a superpower.’” That small price, of course, is the deaths of regular Americans, and is apparently well worth it.
The 9/11 Commission report quietly acknowledged, hundreds of pages in, that “America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world.” A senior official in the George W. Bush administration later put it more bluntly to Esquire: That without the post-Gulf War sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, “bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass.”
Intelligence professionals were quite aware that an invasion of Iraq would take the conditions that led to 9/11 and make them far worse. The British Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war published a February, 2003 assessment by British intelligence of the consequences of an invasion of Iraq, which would occur one month later. “The threat from Al Qaida will increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq,” the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee told Tony Blair, and “the worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly.”
The CIA had the same perspective. Michael Scheuer, who for several years ran the section of the Agency that tracked bin Laden, wrote in 2004 that “U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”
For its part, the Defense Department’s Science Board concluded in a 2004 report that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.”
When Barack Obama took office, he had two choices.
First, he could tell the truth: That the U.S. has acted with extraordinary brutality in the Middle East, that this had been the main motivation for most Islamist terrorism against us, and if we continued the same foreign policy Americans would be killed indefinitely in intermittent attacks. Then we could have had an open, informed debate about whether we like our foreign policy enough to die for it.
Second, Obama could continue trying to run the Middle East without public input, but in a more rational way than the Bush administration.
Obviously he went with the second choice, which demanded several different forms of political correctness.
Most importantly, Obama pretended that the U.S. has never done anything truly wrong to others, and can enjoy the benefits of power without any costs. This is the most pernicious and common form of political correctness, but is never called that because the most powerful people in America love it.
But Obama also engaged in something more akin to what’s generally called political correctness, by contending that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. But it does — just not in the way that Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller would tell you.
Religion and nationalism have always been similar phenomena, and Islam sometimes functions as a form of nationalism. And like all nationalisms, it has a crazy, vicious right wing that’s empowered by outside attacks on members of the nation. The right loves to jeer at Obama for calling Islam “a religion of peace,” and they should — not because Islam specifically isn’t a religion of peace but because there is really no such thing, just as there is no “nationalism of peace.” It’s true religions and nationalism can bring out the best in people, but they also bring out the worst (sometimes in the same person for the same reasons).
But Obama could never say anything like that, because he knew the U.S. needs the governments of Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to keep the rest of the Middle East in line.
This amalgam of political correctness made it impossible for the Obama administration ever to tell a story about terrorism that made any sense. For instance, in his 2009 speech in Cairo, he declared, “It is easier to blame others than to look inward” — and then went on to demonstrate that truism.
His description of wrongs done by the U.S. was vague to the point of meaninglessness: “tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims.” Also, “Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.”
Obama then explained that “Violent extremists have exploited these tensions.” So … 19 people were motivated to fly jetliners into buildings by “tensions”? If that’s the only story that non-Muslim Americans hear, they’ll rationally be terrified of Islam.
In 2010, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, emitted a similar bland puree of words at a press conference when questioned by Helen Thomas about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed underwear bomber. Their exchange went like this:
THOMAS: And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.
BRENNAN: Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents… [They] attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that [they’re] able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.
THOMAS: And you’re saying it’s because of religion?
BRENNAN: I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that uses the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.
BRENNAN: I think this is a, uh, long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.
At his sentencing, Abdulmutallab explained his motivation in less time than it took Brennan to say there wasn’t enough time to explain:
[I pledged] to attack the United States in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel and in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine, especially in the blockade of Gaza, and in retaliation for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants.
To be fair, there is one situation in which American officials have lost the mushmouth and drawn a direct connection between a country killing Mideastern civilians and terrorist retaliation: when that country is Russia. William Burns, formerly Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State, recently and accurately proclaimed that “Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse.” John Kirby, an Obama State Department spokesman, warned that Russia’s brutalization of Syria would lead to “attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities.”
That brings us back to President Trump and his executive order on immigration.
Trump’s story about why it’s necessary is, factually speaking, garbage. But a normal human being can at least understand it and its moral: These incomprehensible foreigners are all potential psychotics, we’ve got to keep them out. Under these circumstances, who cares that no one from any of these seven countries has killed any Americans yet? They’re all part of a huge morass of ticking time bombs.
By contrast, the Democratic, liberal perspective laid out by Obama makes no sense at all. We’ve never done anything particularly bad in the Middle East, yet … some people over there want to come here and kill us because … they’ve been exploited by violent extremists who’ve perverted Islam and … gotta run, there’s no time to explain.
Regular people could sense that anyone mouthing this kind of gibberish was hiding something, even if they didn’t realize that Obama was trying to keep the U.S. empire running rather than concealing his secret faith in Islam.
And because a coherent narrative always beats the complete absence of a story, no one should be surprised that many Americans find Trump’s fantasy of inexplicable Muslim hatred persuasive. The only way to conclusively beat it will be with a coherent, complicated, true story like this:
America has done hideous things to countries across the Middle East for decades, such as bomb a civilian air raid shelter, burning the silhouette of a mother trying to protect her baby onto its walls. It was inevitable that some people would seek revenge. This doesn’t mean that their brutality is justified, any more than the slaughter at Amiriyah was justified by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It just means that humans are humans, violence begets violence, and Americans will always be in danger unless we change our foreign policy.
We must welcome immigrants from the Middle East both for moral and pragmatic reasons. Morally, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is what sent the region spiraling into catastrophe; only psychopaths set someone’s home on fire and then lock them inside. There are already three million Muslim American citizens. If the government keeps bombing the Middle East while making it clear that it genuinely hates Muslims, that will only spur to action more troubled weirdos like Omar Mateen — who was born in Queens, a few miles away from Donald Trump’s childhood home.
And we’d better get started with this story soon, because it may not be true forever. Israel has done an exemplary job turning a solvable, straightforward fight over land into a religious war that may no longer have any solution. We’re making similar strides in transforming a conflict that was 90 percent political, where there can be compromise, into a religious conflict where there can’t.
This can be seen, on the one hand, in ISIS propaganda. Bin Laden generally just talked about kicking the U.S. out of the Middle East and said things like, “Your security is in your own hands and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.” The ISIS magazine Dabiq cheerfully tells us that “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah … even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”
On the other hand, Donald Trump is president of the United States and Steve Bannon is his chief strategist. Bannon straightforwardly believes, as he told a conference at the Vatican in 2014, that “we’re in a war of immense proportions” that’s part of the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” To win, Bannon says, we must form the “church militant” – an archaic term for the “Christian church on earth regarded as engaged in a constant warfare against its enemies, the powers of evil.”
So it’s quite possible ISIS and the Trump administration can successfully collaborate on getting what they both want: a totally unnecessary, civilizational war. To stop them we have to end our truckling equivocation about terrorism, and start telling the truth while there’s still time.