In December of 2015, in response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack by a couple who pledged to ISIS, Donald Trump issued a press release calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives and figure out what is going on” [emphasis added].
Although he’s altered his stance on Muslim immigration multiple times now, he continues to say that the ban must continue until we “figure out what’s going on.” It’s an odd phrase, something you might expect a leader to say after an alien spacecraft lands on the White House lawn, but not what you’d expect to hear from a presidential candidate running for office fifteen years after the war on terror began. Trump used a similar phrase last week
“We have had a lot of problems with radical Islamic terrorism, that’s what I’d say. We have had a lot of problems where you look at San Bernardino, you look at Orlando, you look at the World Trade Center, you look at so many different things. You look at what happened to the priest over the weekend in Paris, where his throat was cut, 85-year-old, beloved Catholic priest. You look at what happened in Nice, France, a couple of weeks ago. I would say, you gotta take a look that, because something is going on, and it’s not good.” [emphasis added].
Again, “something is going on” is the kind of thing I would say to my wife when she asks why the kids are fighting, or the kind of thing I’d say when someone tries to open the stall to a public toilet I’m using. But it’s not what anyone who reads the news would ever say about radical Islamic terrorism in 2016.
Given that our nation has been intensely focused on fighting global terrorism for the last 15 years, given the billions spent on wars and intelligence, and given the incredible and invasive expansion of the surveillance state to combat terrorism, Trump’s repeated appeals to some mystery at the heart of terrorism doesn’t make sense. Whatever the deficits in our counter-terrorism efforts, figuring out “what’s going on” is not the problem. And yet, Trump’s supporters see him as a strong and competent to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.
Why is that? How could such a silly approach to terrorism have such currency? While part of this confidence in Trump comes from his brashness which some take as strength, for the most part, his rhetoric is persuasive because it portrays terrorism as a fundamentally simple problem that has been needlessly complicated by elites in the media, academia, and politics. And in a chaotic world, the simplicity of fighting terrorism as Trump presents it is deeply comforting.
As a friend pointed out to me, some of support for the idea that terrorism is a simple problem came from conspiracy theories that our government actually supports Islamists. Of course, Trump helped create this conspiracy by pushing his “doubts” about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011. If Obama wasn’t really American, maybe his allegiances were elsewhere, like with Islam. Add to the “question” of Obama’s origins his unwillingness to say that radicalized Islam is responsible for global terror, his support of the Arab Spring, his (brief) support of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and his poor decision to pull troops out of Iraq (which created the power vacuum that gave birth to ISIS), and there’s just enough “evidence” for a conspiracy theory.
During his presidency, Obama has regularly been accused of being a secret Muslim working for the Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS or both. Islam pundit Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy created a 10-part series on the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration into America, including deep into the Obama administration. WorldNetDaily has consistently implied or claimed that Obama is a Muslim. And of course, earlier this year Trump claimed that Obama refuses to say “Islamic terrorism” because “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands,” implying that the president actually supports Islamic terrorism.
What this conspiracy theory leads to is the conclusion that terrorism continues only because President Obama doesn’t really want to stop it. Or, as Trump says, “he doesn’t get it.” But in either case, the problem isn’t that complicated. If our leaders merely had the will, they could end terrorism, exterminate ISIS, and keep us safe.
Trump’s Something is Happening Theory of Islamic Terrorism works with some voters because many of us have struggled to make sense out of this entirely new kind of global warfare — warfare where there are no clear lines of battle, no clear goals, no clear land to take, and no clear rules of engagement. The kid living next door to you might grow up, becoming radicalized by watching YouTube, and decide to kill random civilians without ever personally contacting ISIS. This war fills us with deep anxiety, a feeling of helplessness and paranoia, which is exactly the point of terrorism. For people who struggle to sort through the intensely complex historical, ethnic, religious, moral, political, and economic nuances of global terrorism, there is a strong incentive and desire to view the entire thing as actually very, very simple: Islam is out to destroy us, so we must exterminate them first; then we will be safe. Trump’s supporters can justify this logic with skepticism towards academic, political, and media elites who they feel overcomplicate issues when what we really need is common sense and straight talk and strength. And that’s exactly what they hear from Trump.
So, when Trump says that we just need to “figure out what’s going on,” he’s really saying to voters, “Terrorism is really simple. We find them and then we kill them. That’s what America has always done. That’s what we can do now. But the wimpy liberals have made it harder than it needs to be.”
In that way, Trump’s Something is Happening Theory of Islamic Terrorism is a fantasy that plays on our sense of anxiety, appeals to anti-intellectualism, and lets us feel like maybe the world isn’t so complex after all. And in that way, it’s about much more than Trump and terrorism. It’s about a chaotic global world and our sense of helplessness within it. Even though America is a very safe place to live and terrorism hardly affects any of us (except via the TSA), we want the reassurance that we still have control over evil.
Unfortunately, this is the exact goal of terrorism: to disrupt our lives, fill us with anxiety, and force us to make rash military and political decisions that they can leverage into more terrorist recruiting.
There is no reason to be hopeless about counter-terrorism. We can do better, and we must. But we can only reduce global terrorism with sober, nuanced thinking. As attractive as a “Something is Happening” explanation of terrorism might be, it cannot save lives. There are no shortcuts to peace.