When a commentator like Ann Coulter calls for the mass deportation of all Muslim non-citizens from "suspect countries," it is tempting to simply write her off as an extremist light years off her rocker. But as we look deeper at the increasingly venomous tirades of pundits since September 11, it becomes clear that the trend toward aggressive political jargon has accelerated in the wake of the attacks. As a result, public discourse is spiraling to new levels of illogic as the nation moves toward war.
Amongst the many pundits using such disturbing tactics, two stand out. Coulter, who rose to prominence as a bloodthirsty Clinton hater, has led the charge toward reflexive anti-Muslim policies, calling for the forced conversion of Islamic countries to Christianity, airport security crackdowns on "suspicious-looking swarthy males" and the aforementioned deportation of Muslim aliens. Her rhetorical counterpart has been Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator and former New Republic editor who has twice suggested that opponents of war are aiding the enemy as part of a domestic "fifth column."
Bash the Arabs
Coulter's newest column is perhaps her most outrageous. She lays out a "Terrorist Deportation Plan," in which the government would force all non-citizens from "suspect nations" to leave the country until we "sort the peace-loving immigrants from the murderous fanatics."
The crux of her argument is that while the vast majority of Muslims in this country are peaceful, the terrorists are Muslims, and thus, all must go:
Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims -- at least all terrorists capable of assembling a murderous plot against America that leaves 7,000 people dead in under two hours How are we to distinguish the peaceful Muslims from the fanatical, homicidal Muslims about to murder thousands of our fellow citizens? The only thing we know about them -- other than that they live among us -- is that they are foreign-born and they are Muslims.
Coulter only offers two exceptions allowing Muslim non-citizens to stay: those who "agree to spy on the millions of Muslim citizens unaffected by the deportation order," or who are sponsored by a U.S. senator. (If U.S. senators can weed out would-be terrorists, let's enlist them now and forget about the mass deportations.)
This is not the first time Coulter has made such arguments. In another post-September 11 column, she wrote that it is "completely useless" to search her bags at the airport since there has not been a "rash of hijackings by Connecticut WASP girls." On the other hand, Coulter wants to require passports on domestic flights so that they can be "checked with the home country in case of any suspicious-looking swarthy males."
But Coulter doesn't just call for crass ethnic stereotyping and the crushing of civil-liberties. In her first column after September 11, Coulter even argued for invading any country in which people cheered the attacks and converting them to Christianity:
We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.
Clobber the Left
While xenophobia is always a threat in wartime, so too is the suppression of dissent. Andrew Sullivan has been the most prominent national pundit attacking dissenters for aiding the enemy. First, Sullivan wrote this in the Sunday Times of London:
The middle part of the country -- the great red zone that voted for Bush -- is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead -- and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.
Beyond the broad regional stereotypes, this is an outrageous and unsupportable suggestion that leftists will attempt to aid terrorists -- "fifth column," after all, refers to saboteurs and spies. Despite his use of the qualifiers "may well" and "amounts to"common tactics used by some pundits to provide cover for irrational jargon -- Sullivan is setting a truly frightening precedent: the pre-emptive definition of any opposition to U.S. policy as essentially treasonous.
Later, Sullivan again used the term on his website, writing that we might as well be aware of the enemy within the West itself -- "a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column that will surely ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead." Note that Sullivan's rhetoric here introduces an "enemy" in the West, even more explicitly conflating domestic opposition with terrorists bent on attacking America.
After criticism from Timothy Noah of Slate, Sullivan attempted to twist the meaning of the term "fifth column" even as he promised not to use such "shorthand" again:
I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already. And that dissent is part of what we're fighting for. By fifth column, I meant simply their ambivalence about the outcome of a war on which I believe the future of liberty hangs.
Sullivan is being disingenuous -- the term has no such ambivalence. According to Merriam-Webster Online, it means "a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders." Note also that his non-apology still alleges that leftists are helping the enemy, as he states that he doesn't believe critics, "would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already" (emphasis added).
Sullivan and Coulter are at the forefront of an accelerating trend of public debate conducted using aggressive and emotional rhetoric. Such tactics work to destroy the rational public dialogue that is a necessary foundation of modern democracy. As we move towards a long and secretive war, it is more important than ever that Americans remain vigilant against such threats.