It would appear that our descent into irrationality has not yet hit its limit. Yesterday, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump said that he would consider forcing Muslims to register with the government to be part of a tracking database. Here's what he said:
MSNBC's Vaughn Hillyard: Should there be a system a database to track Muslims?
Trump: There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases, we should have a lot of systems, and today you can do it.But right now we have to have order, we have to have strength, we have to have a wall and we cannot let what's happening to this country happen any longer.
Hillyard: Is that ... your White House would...(inaudible)
Trump: I would certainly implement that.
Hillyard: What do you think the effect of it, how would that work?
Trump: It would stop people from coming in illegally. We have to stop people from coming in to our country illegally
Hillyard: For Muslims specifically, how do you get them registered into a database?
Trump: It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures.
Hillyard: Do you go to mosques and sign these people up?
Trump: Different places. You sign em up at different places. But it's all about management. Our country has no management.
This took place at a ropeline in Iowa where Trump was campaigning. The question didn't come out of nowhere. Earlier in the day Yahoo News had published an interview in which Trump said that he would deport any Syrian refugees allowed to enter this country under President Obama and didn't rule out draconian surveillance measures to track American Muslims. He ominously warned:
“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Yahoo News had asked him if he might require Muslims to register in a database and give them a special form of identification and Trump did not rule it out, saying,
“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
The MSNBC reporter asked him why Muslims databases would be different than having Jews register in Nazi Germany. He replied, "You tell me."
So, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president has once more upped the ante on the xenophobia that's been sweeping through the right wing for some time. Mexicans, Muslims, it all the same. Gotta build that wall, track them, deport them, keep 'em out.
Unfortunately, the nervousness coursing though society after the terrorist attack in Paris has made this kind of talk sound less unreasonable to more people, and we had the Congress yesterday struggling to find a way to appease voters who were calling into their offices demanding that refugees be denied entry into the country. All but two of the Republicans in the House and a total of 47 Democrats voted for a bill that would require the heads of DHS, the FBI and the DOJ to personally sign off on each refugee's file.
Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii voted with the Republicans and explained on MSNBC that this would sooth the fears of Americans to know that these very high level officials were personally vouching for each and every refugee. This is obviously a disingenuous explanation of the purpose of the bill. This new requirement will have the effect of sending all the refugees currently awaiting their determination to basically start anew. Requiring these officials to sign off on on each applicant will slow down the process to a very slow trickle, or what Speaker Paul Ryan called "a pause."
The Democrats provided enough votes to override a presidential veto.
Greg Sargent in the Washington Post reported that it's assumed the Senate will not pass this bill and will try to divert attention from the refugees to the "visa waiver" program which allows people carrying certain passports of allied European countries to travel to the US without going through the visa process. The purported concern is that French or British nationals who travel to Iraq or Syria for training and then come back to their home country can fly to the U.S. without any vetting. It does sound like a wide-open loophole, but one can't help but wonder why it hasn't happened if it's so easy. If a French terrorist can just hop on a plane and come to America to wage jihad it seems like a no-brainer.
Actually, it's fairly obvious that these people are already on the no-fly list and are probably being tracked by other means as well. Last August it was reported that DHS was implementing other safeguards and working with foreign countries to use a common database. The program has been under intense scrutiny for some time.
Still, there is no obvious reason not to deny a visa waiver to anyone who has travelled to one of the designated countries within the last five years, which is the reported plan. Some businessmen and oil executives will be inconvenienced but they can either obtain visas the normal way or the government will come up with some kind of special vetting for business travellers. If the Congress needs to be seen to "do something" to keep the terrorists out, this is more reasonable than denying asylum to desperate refugees.
The explanation as to why 47 Democrats would join in this immigrant bashfest is as prosaic as it is depressing. They fear being called "soft on terrorism." A bunch of hysterical voters who listen to demagogues on cable TV and talk radio called their offices to demand they put a stop to this foreign threat. Rather than be leaders and try to calm the waters, they just went with the flow, knowing that this legislation is unlikely to become law, but wanting to be able to tell their constituents they voted to bar refugees from our shores and keep the children safe. (Well, the good American children anyway. Syrian children will not be so lucky.)
Why they believe this will work for them is unknown. If they believe the threat of refugees will be a big issue a year from now and their seats are so precariously held that they have to abandon all reason in order to keep them, they are probably going to lose anyway. Voters who succumb to xenophobia will likely vote for the Republican alternative. Stoking paranoia is the GOP specialty.
And anyway, this is a soulless sort of politics. This isn't a highway bill or a tax hike. It's an issue of life and death. These are votes that should be taken on merit, not political calculation (which very often turn out badly --- ask Hillary Clinton). And feeding this xenophobic beast in an environment in which the frontrunner of the Republican Party is endorsing government registration of American Muslims is a very risky business. This kind of thing can get out of hand quickly.
The public's fear of Syrian refugees may be understandable but it is nonetheless irrational, and political leaders have a responsibility to be rational at times like these, if for no other reason than to actually protect the nation instead of playing kabuki games for political purposes. As this recent report from the Center for American Progress lays out, enabling Islamophobia is one of the most dangerous things our leaders can do:
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, is pursuing a strategy explicitly designed to provoke hostility toward innocent Muslims in Western society in order to radicalize these communities and recruit them to their cause. Listening to the American political debate in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, that strategy may be working. Islamophobic rants are both morally offensive and factually inaccurate and play right into the hands of our terrorist enemies.
ISIS is not hiding its objectives. In its publications, it talks of forcing the world into two camps by “destroy[ing] the grayzone” between itself and the forces aligned against it. For ISIS, the grayzone is inhabited by those who have yet to commit to one side in its clash of civilizations. In the February edition of its official magazine Dabiq, an ISIS writer outlined a plan to compel “the crusaders [the West] to actively destroy the grayzone themselves” by generating anti-Muslim hysteria in the wake of terrorism. Attacks such as those in Paris are designed to get Western governments to alienate their Muslim populations and push them toward ISIS.
Frankly, it's just dumb on every level for American politicians to play into these fears. They can acknowledge them and be respectful of the voters who feel them. But if they had taken their responsibilities seriously, they would have voted no with congressman Ted Lieu of California who issued a statement in advance of the vote that concluded with this:
No one is happier about xenophobic, anti-Muslim, reactions than the so-called Islamic State. Islamophobic hysteria is a prime recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. This is exactly the kind of overreaction that they hope to achieve: To use terrible acts of violence to horrify Western society into compromising our own humanity and way of life.
The American story has in large part been written by intrepid souls fleeing persecution in search of a better life in a nation forged in liberty's name and dedicated to the equality of all.
Anyone who would close our borders to orphans fleeing barrel bombs, when substantial security checks are in place, is simply admitting defeat. They are surrendering to the tragic idea that America cannot be both strong and value-driven, that our union cannot be made more perfect by confronting fear and hatred and violence with even greater measures of strength, compassion and virtue. We are better than that.”
It remains to be seen if we are better than that. Hopefully, the House will calm down and the Senate will derail this bill. But more importantly, one hopes that Democrats and whatever sane Republicans are left will recognize that every time they feed this xenophobic monster it makes Donald Trump and his ilk stronger. And if they make Donald Trump and his ilk stronger they are also making the ISIS terrorists stronger. That's a bad policy on every level.