President Trump and his administration have little to say beyond offering “thoughts and prayers” when white killers strike — even when they are undoubtedly terrorists (e.g., the car-ramming attack on Aug. 12 by a white supremacist in Charlottesville which killed one person and injured 19) and even when they claim dozens of victims (e.g., the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1 which left 58 people dead).
But every time a Muslim strikes, the White House predictably claims vindication for its hardline approach to immigration.
On Monday, according to police, a 27-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh named Akayed Ullah detonated an explosive device at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, seriously injuring no one but himself.
Within hours, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was claiming: “This attack underscores the need for Congress to work with the president on immigration reforms that enhance the national security and public safety. We must protect our borders and we must ensure that individuals entering our country are not coming to do harm to people, and we must move to a merit-based immigration system.”
It’s true that Ullah was born abroad, but it’s hard to see what his attack has to do with immigration reform, and specifically Trump’s version thereof — any more than did the Halloween car-ramming attack in downtown New York carried out by Uzbekistan native Sayfullo Saipov.
There is no evidence that either Ullah or Saipov was an Islamist radical when they came here years ago; if they had been, it’s hard to imagine why they waited so long to strike and, in Ullah’s case, did so in such failed fashion. Neither of their attacks required much planning or preparation, and both were inspired by Islamic State’s online propaganda. Like the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, they were radicalized while living in the United States.
In short, it’s hard to see how tougher immigration screening would have helped, unless the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who admitted them were clairvoyant and could foresee that they would become drawn, years into the future, toward radical Islamist ideology.
Certainly the various forms of Trump’s Muslim ban would not have prevented these terrorists’ entry into America. Neither Bangladesh nor Uzbekistan nor Kyrgyzstan — the place where the Tsarnaev brothers were born of Chechen ancestry — were included on Trump’s list of forbidden countries. The original executive order, issued Jan. 27, affected Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, even though terrorists from those countries have never actually killed anyone in the United States.
After this ban was ruled unconstitutional by various federal judges, the Trump administration was forced to rewrite it. The current version, issued on Sept. 24, stops most citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea from entering the United States and imposes enhanced restrictions on citizens of Iraq and some citizens of Venezuela.
The addition of a few non-Muslim countries such as Venezuela and North Korea was window-dressing to deflect criticism that this was a “Muslim ban” even though Trump himself has repeatedly equated his travel order with his original promise for a “Muslim ban.” Last week the Supreme Court allowed the travel order to take effect while legal challenges to it to continue.
Whatever form it takes, the travel ban is utterly disconnected from, indeed at odds with, the requirements of counter-terrorism. What the Port Authority attack underscores is that the No. 1 terrorist threat to the homeland comes from people who are radicalized while already living here — whether they are white supremacists or Islamists. Perversely, Trump’s rhetoric — tolerant of white supremacism, intolerant of Islam — helps both groups of extremists.
Both “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer and David Duke and the leaders of Islamic State have said that Trump is good for recruiting. Just a couple of weeks ago, Trump retweeted anti-Islamic videos — one of them an outright hoax — posted by a British far-right leader. Thus the president of the United States inadvertently furthers the terrorists’ claims that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live peaceably side by side.
Trump has done a good job of beating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the more that he gives the impression that America is at war with Islam, the more he risks radicalizing future generations of terrorists both at home and abroad. That’s why both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama were careful to stress that the U.S. isn’t fighting Islam but only a small faction of deluded extremists. Trump thinks such distinctions are “politically correct,” but they are in fact strategically smart.
The U.S. already does “extreme vetting” of visitors from abroad, especially visitors from Muslim lands — and that was going on well before Trump became President. It’s a product of 9/11/01, not of 11/08/16. There is no evidence that Trump’s attempts to further tighten border security are actually making us more secure, and there is good cause to fear that his incendiary rhetoric is undermining our security.
Instead of blustering on about the problems of immigration and Islam, the president would be better advised to acknowledge that America’s biggest success story is our ability to assimilate immigrants from all over the world.
The New York Police Department exemplifies that diversity — its officers hail from 88 different countries, and Muslim officers and analysts are essential to monitoring Muslim terrorist networks. Yet Trump always speaks of the problems, never the promise, of immigration. Rather than falsely claiming vindication from every terrorist attack, the President would be well advised to rethink his entire approach.