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.”
Not everyone in Obama’s administration is so restrained, unfortunately. CIA director John Brennan took the Paris attacks as an opportunity to denigrate what he called “hand-wringing” over NSA spying, as if a single terrorist attack renders the global debate about privacy that has occupied much of the world for the last year and a half meritless. Yet Brennan surely knows that the increased privacy protections for Americans enacted in the USA Freedom Act had no conceivable connection to Paris, and that the NSA’s surveillance abroad, which has not been curtailed, nonetheless did not identify or disrupt the Paris plot.
Similarly, FBI director James Comey exploited the Paris attacks to resurrect his criticism of Silicon Valley for encrypting consumers’ cellphones without reserving a back door for the government—a debate he had lost well before the attacks. The fact that no one has actually pointed to evidence of encrypted communications in the attacks, and that no one has come up with a way to enable government access without simultaneously enabling access by criminals and others, did not seem to concern him.
Meanwhile, things are no better in Europe, where the attacks actually occurred. The day after the attacks, Hollande declared a war on terrorism. At the same time, he sought—and has received—extraordinary emergency powers from the French National Assembly. They include the authority to ban radical groups, suppress websites that glorify terrorism, conduct searches without warrants, and impose house arrest and electronic ankle bracelets on suspects not convicted of any crime. Hollande also wants, and will probably get, the power to strip French citizenship from dual nationals who are deemed security threats, in order to expel them. In just the first week following the Paris attacks, French authorities carried out more than 414 raids, arrested 64 people, and placed 118 under house arrest. One raid, in the Paris suburb of St. Denis, resulted in the death of the man suspected of being the mastermind of the Paris attacks. But it remains to be seen how many of the other raids, or individuals rounded up, are in any way connected to terrorism.
If history is any guide, nearly all of those targeted will be Muslim—but few if any will be terrorists. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration rounded up thousands of Arab and Muslim foreign nationals in the United States on pretextual immigration charges and subjected them to lengthy preventive detention while it investigated them; none turned out to be terrorists. In 1919, when terrorist bombs exploded in eight different cities in the United States on the same day, the Justice Department responded by arresting and deporting thousands of foreign nationals—not for their involvement in the attacks, but for their alleged connections to the Communist Party. None were ever charged with the bombings. And during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the internment of over 110,000 Americans and foreign nationals, solely because of their Japanese ancestry. None were convicted of espionage or sabotage.
When it’s not evident where the next attack might arise, government officials inevitably reach more broadly than necessary, sweeping up countless persons whose only “crime” is to be of the same nationality, ethnicity, or religion as the suspects. Such responses often backfire, alienating the very communities with which the authorities need to develop healthy ties if they are to have a chance at identifying potential problems before they manifest themselves in another attack. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton ended the NYPD’s controversial program of monitoring mosques and Muslim businesses when he took office, and recently asserted that “not one single piece of actionable intelligence ever came out of that unit in its years of existence.” That program has caused deep distrust in the Muslim communities of New York and New Jersey.
ISIS undoubtedly poses an unacceptable threat, and there is no straightforward way of eliminating it at the moment. In the meantime, we need to manage the risk. And if history teaches us anything, it is that invoking unnecessary emergency powers, sweeping up thousands of innocents, and calling for ethnic or religious registration and profiling is not only mismanagement of the worst kind but politics at its most base.