It's Beginning to Feel Like 2002 All Over Again

(Photo: AP/Rachel La Corte)

Protesters on opposing sides of the refugee issue rally in front of the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, after Governor Jay Inslee said the state would welcome refugees.

At the end of last week, the liberal group Media Matters noted that in the wake of the Madrid bombings in March 2004, Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly asserted that "If al-Qaeda attacks here, President Bush is re-elected in a heartbeat," since "unlike the Spanish," who are passive sheep (or something), the strong American public "won't surrender, they'll get angry." But after the recent attacks in Paris, O'Reilly sang a different tune: "We get hit, [Obama] goes down as the worst president in U.S. history. No doubt."

While Media Matters's purpose in juxtaposing these two quotes was surely to mock O'Reilly for his partisan hypocrisy, you can look at it another, much more depressing way: O'Reilly was probably right both times.

Not about history's judgment of Obama, obviously. But given what we've seen in the last couple of weeks, it's becoming hard to hope that anything resembling a rational reaction to the events in Paris will take hold. As I wrote last week, Republicans are rushing to exploit the attacks in the most cynical and repugnant ways, which shouldn't surprise anyone. But the real problem is that most of the public is going to eat it up.

That's partly because of what they're hearing from their leaders. Today's Republicans would never consider rallying around President Obama if there were an attack in the U.S. the way Democrats did after September 11. They might gather on the Capitol steps, but it wouldn't be to sing "God Bless America" as Democrats and Republicans did soon after the attacks; it would be to rush to the cameras to condemn Obama for having blood on his hands. Indeed, they already have; "John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama have all served as apologists for radical Islamic terrorism," said Ted Cruz last week.

People of all parties take cues from their leaders, which helps explain why support for Bush was so universal in the days after 9/11, and why Republicans' hatred of Obama only grows when they're made to feel vulnerable to foreign threats. But today's Republicans are harvesting fertile soils of fear and hate.

People like me can explain until we're blue in the face that becoming a refugee to Europe is nothing like becoming a refugee to the United States, a process that can take two years; and that sneaking someone into the U.S. posing as a refugee is probably the single hardest way to get them to the U.S. (as opposed to, say, buying them a plane ticket). We can explain that the threat to you and your family's lives from terrorism is infinitesimal (the number of Americans who have been killed in the U.S. by jihadi terrorists since 9/11—26—just happens to be the same number of Americans who have been killed by lightning in 2015 alone). But it won't much matter.

A majority of the public opposes bringing in refugees from Syria. Americans now cite terrorism as the most important issue facing the country, though by any logical standard it most certainly is not (for instance, it takes less than two days for more Americans to die from gun violence as died in the Paris attacks). In the wake of those attacks, Donald Trump remains strongly in front in the Republican presidential primary race. As Politico reports, conservative voters in Iowa may be turning away from Ben Carson and toward Ted Cruz now that they're thinking about terrorism. In truth, Cruz has the same amount of foreign policy experience as Carson (zero), but he's a lot angrier about it, which seems to be the order of the day in the GOP.

Reporters have spent much of the last week or so trying to pin Trump down on whether he thinks the government should create a database that every Muslim in America would have to register with, a positively fascistic suggestion that he may or may not have been unfairly entrapped into supporting. Like everything else related to government policy, Trump obviously hasn't given it any serious thought, but reporters are operating on the quite reasonable assumption that it would be scandalous if he actually believed such a thing. But would it?

At least in the Republican primary, where virulent xenophobia now seems to be the order of the day, the answer is probably not. Trump is now talking about putting Muslim houses of worship across the country under surveillance, Marco Rubio agrees, and most voters may find that to be utterly untroubling; after all, it's not their freedoms being taken away. Trump also wants to begin torturing prisoners again (not that we have any ISIS prisoners), Chris Christie says he wouldn't even allow a 5-year-old orphan from Syria into New Jersey, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush say we should only accept Christians but keep out Muslims, and Ben Carson compares refugees to rabid dogs. Nothing that any of the candidates have said since Paris suggests that there is any position they could take or thing they could say that would be regarded by their voters as beyond the pale.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that heightened fears of ISIS will sweep the Republicans into the White House next year; there's lots of time between now and then, and other issues will grab the electorate's attention. The American public and its political elite may not have taken leave of their senses to quite the degree they did in the months and years after September 11, when no restriction on individual liberty went far enough, no expansion of government power was too much, and invading a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on us seemed like the perfect way to handle our fear and anger. But the increasingly ugly atmosphere is beginning to feel awfully familiar. 

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