Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the United States is so reprehensible that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll begin with this: Aside from being morally bankrupt and likely to provoke anti-Muslim violence, Trump’s rhetoric is based on a profound misreading of reality.
Every weekend I receive an email newsletter from The Washington Post called “The Optimist,” which highlights 10 or so uplifting stories. Its aim, I imagine, is to prevent you from slitting your wrists after wading through a week’s worth of news about death, destruction, and other depressing topics.
The lead item in “The Optimist” this past weekend—after the mass murders in San Bernardino but before Trump’s hateful outburst—was headlined “We’ve had a massive decline in gun violence in the United States. Here’s why.”
According to the article, by Max Ehrenfreund, the Pew Research Center has found that gun homicides fell by nearly 50 percent from 1993 to 2013—from seven per 100,000 to 3.6. The possible reasons ranged from more police officers to declining alcohol consumption to fewer instances of lead poisoning, which causes brain damage that can lead to criminal behavior.
Moreover, terrorism—including terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism—comprises such a small proportion of homicides that it barely amounts to a rounding error. According to The New York Times, 45 people in the United States have died in jihadist terrorism attacks (including the 14 killed in San Bernardino) since September 11, 2001. The death toll from terrorists associated with white supremacists and other right-wing groups is slightly higher: 48.
And these figures pale in comparison to the more than 200,000 “conventional murders” that were committed during the same period. But the Times article notes, correctly, that “the disproportionate focus they [terrorist attacks] draw in the news media and their effect on public fear demand the attention of any administration.”
Which is why we are in the midst of a national freakout over jihadist-inspired terrorism—not just to the exclusion of other murders, but to the exclusion of other acts of terror as well. Consider:
It’s been a little over a week since three people were fatally shot at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The suspected killer, Robert Lewis Dear, may have been inspired by selectively edited videos put together by abortion-rights opponents. Yet the incident, while receiving considerable news coverage, did not lead to anything other than the usual back-and-forth over gun control.
Similarly, the mass murder last June of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently at the hands of a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof, led to a worthwhile national conversation about the Confederate flag—but nothing more.
The worst mass shooting in American history, needless to say, was the 2012 massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That particular incident actually did lead to a prolonged debate over gun control and the ease with which the mentally ill killer, Adam Lanza, had managed to obtain lethal weaponry. Ultimately, though, very little action was taken.
As those of us who live in Boston will never forget, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath—which claimed the lives of four people and caused dozens of serious injuries—were a genuine example of jihadist terrorism. The bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were radicalized Muslims who read Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which contained articles such as “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
In addition, the Tsarnaev brothers were actual immigrants, unlike Syed Rizwan Farook, the native-born American who carried out the San Bernardino massacre with his Pakistani immigrant wife, Tashfeen Malik. Yet the marathon attacks did not lead to the sort of hysteria that Trump is now exploiting.
Then again, 2013 preceded the presidential campaign. And Donald Trump was not running.
Last week I wrote that media angst over Trump’s continued dominance over the rest of the Republican presidential field was misplaced—that polls showing he was stuck at about a third of prospective Republican primary voters showed he couldn’t win the nomination and would eventually be overtaken. I still believe that. Nevertheless, Trump can do an enormous amount of damage simply through his continued presence in the race.
For the media, the danger is that his frightening comments will be dismissed as a tactic to gain a momentary advantage over his rivals rather than as loathsome, un-American rhetoric that has no place in civil society. Trump may or may not know—and he surely doesn’t care—that he is tapping into some pretty dark recesses of the American psyche. For instance, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell on Monday cited a recent poll showing that only 58 percent of New Hampshire Republicans believe that Islam should be legal.
Politico, perhaps the leading exemplar of the savvy school of political analysis (that’s not a compliment; I mean it in the Jay Rosen sense of the term), got off to a particularly bad start. A piece by Ben Schrenckinger called Trump’s proposal “provocative” and “eye-catching,” and asserted that he is passing Republicans’ “toughness test” with “flying colors.”
On the other hand, the cover of today’s Philadelphia Daily News features Trump extending his right arm in a Hitler-like pose with the headline “The New Furor.” That’s more like it.
The Republican presidential candidates, at least, seem to be stepping up. Even Dick Cheney has denounced Trump, telling conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, “I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
But this has gone on long enough—too long. Trump can’t win, but he’s degrading political discourse and inciting people who don’t need much in the way of provocation to act on their hatred and fears.
He can’t be driven out of the race until he starts losing (if then), and I suppose he can’t be ignored, either. But he can be denounced and scorned—delegitimized would be a more clinical term for it.
The next Republican presidential debate will be held on December 15. It’s going to be must-watch TV. That’s exactly what Trump wants, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to go well for him. Let’s hope it doesn’t.