Tuesday night's Republican debate was centered on foreign policy and national security, and it was about as disturbing a time as two hours in the company of nine Republicans talking about foreign policy and national security could be expected to be. All of that extreme intolerance and frenzied war-mongering can coalesce into a dense, bitter fog over the course of two hours, but a few things about both what the candidates said and the way CNN conducted the debate managed to push through that haze and hang over the proceedings in a rather profoundly dispiriting way.
The saddest part of the debate came in its opening minutes, as the candidates discussed Donald Trump's plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. What was so chilling was how relaxed the conversation was. Not a single candidate attacked Trump's plan on the basis that it is inhumane and racist. Jeb Bush, for instance, said that it was wrong because it wouldn't help defeat ISIS—true, but beside the point. Marco Rubio said that it was wrong, but that he definitely understood why people liked the idea. This was not too surprising; almost all of the Republicans have put forward some form of Islamophobic plan or other. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer essentially let the matter pass by. There was no mention of the string of anti-Muslim incidents that have taken place across the country in recent weeks. There was no concerted attempt to tackle the essential immorality at the heart of America's current discourse around Islam. Muslims, it seems, do not merit such a response. It was like standing outside a burning building and half-heartedly talking about whether you should call 911. You watched, in real time, the way that ideas of the purest ugliness get transformed into just another thing to talk about.
CNN failed in two other key ways. The debate was about national security and the world, but apparently the network's conception of the topic did not include climate change or guns. These omissions were as baffling as they were frustrating.
Virtually every country on Earth just signed an historic agreement to combat climate change. How in the world was this not a worthy area of discussion? In what alternate universe does climate change not affect peace, prosperity and stability? In what way is the fact that the Republican Party stands against nearly 200 countries of all political persuasions in its continued denial of climate change not a valid thing to bring up?
It's possible, I suppose, to say that climate change is not an active part of the national security framework, and thus didn't belong in the discussion. Wrong, but possible. Who could say the same thing about guns? Whether you are for gun control or against it, it is a simple fact that America is swimming in guns and that mass shootings are becoming increasingly routine. A staggering 71 percent of respondents told NBC News on Monday that "the shootings and random acts of violence that have taken place this year are now a permanent part of American life." What do the candidates make of a country that has that opinion of itself? Do they think that domestic extremists like the Planned Parenthood shooter or the Charleston shooter constitute a national security threat? If not, why not? It's entirely possible that we know what the answers to these questions would have been, but the same could be said for almost any topic. The point, if you are the journalist, is to ask. CNN didn't. In not doing so, it perpetuated the notion that violence by Muslims is something to lose your mind about, while violence by white people doesn't even matter enough to take up a single second of time.
Instead, the debate focused obsessively on the kind of blood-soaked war rhetoric so favored in the world of cable news. Moderator Hugh Hewitt even asked Ben Carson if he had what it took to cause the deaths of thousands of innocent children—to be "as ruthless as Churchill was" in war. Carson replied that he did—that "it's actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job rather than death by a thousand pricks." There were lots of moments like that. It was all too terrible.