ISIS’s brutal terrorist attacks in Paris have occasioned a manhunt in Europe, the shutting down of Brussels, emergency measures in France—and blatant political opportunism from Republican presidential candidates here at home. Donald Trump said that if he were president he’d institute registration, a database, and perhaps special ID cards for all Muslims in the United States. He also said he would “absolutely” bring back waterboarding, though he hasn’t specified whether he’d have all Muslims waterboarded, or just some subset of them. Ben Carson compared potential terrorists to “rabid dogs,” and urged screening of all Syrian refugees—even though refugees are already more carefully screened than any other foreign national seeking to enter the United States.
Ted Cruz has suggested that we accept only Christian refugees from Syria, a majority-Muslim country. Chris Christie wants to bar Syrian refugees from New Jersey, even 5-year-old orphans. And Marco Rubio supports a freeze on refugees until they get background checks—apparently unaware that they already get such checks.
This is the politics of least resistance. In a time of fear, a responsible leader would reassure his or her people, examine whether the nation’s defenses are sufficient, and propose sensible ways to shore up defenses against real threats. But too many politicians instead choose to play to the lowest common denominator, pushing measures that make them sound tough but respond to no identifiable problem. When it’s about political theater, not actual security, the harsher the solution, the better. And when one’s proposals would sacrifice the rights of non-voters in the guise of advancing their security, even better.
Listening to today’s Republican candidates, one might even begin to feel nostalgic for George W. Bush, who despite his many faults understood that it was critical not to confuse terrorism with Islam. Just six days after 9/11, Bush visited a mosque and insisted that the conflict was not with Muslims but with terrorists. The Republican candidates would do well to pay heed to that message. Nothing serves ISIS’s interests better than portraying the conflict as pitting Islam against the West.
To his credit, President Obama has resisted the easy route of scapegoating foreign nationals or minority religions, or doing things that sound tough but don’t solve the problem. He has not sought to exploit fear for personal or partisan gain. Instead, he has courageously insisted on the importance of respecting the rights of others, and called on all of us to do precisely that. In a press conference with French President François Hollande, he maintained that “another part of being vigilant, another part of defeating terrorists like ISIL, is upholding the rights and freedoms that define our two great republics. That includes freedom of religion. That includes equality before the law. There have been times in our history, in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals, and it has been to our lasting regret. We must uphold our ideals now.”