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On Brussels, Politics, and The Benefit of Pause

Knee-jerk reactions have been less than successful before, perhaps a more measured response is appropriate now

Many of us woke up Tuesday morning to find that Brussels was in the midst of a terror attack for which ISIS soon claimed responsibility. The same thing, with slightly less media coverage, happened in Istanbul on Saturday, and its likely (though not yet confirmed) that the same group was behind the attack.

My immediate reaction was a somewhat sobering, visceral feeling that one or both of these events would be used as more political fodder for those running for President of the United States.  I didn't have to wait long:

The implication, though more subtle this time around, is that Mr. Trump has a problem with Muslims.  His only legitimate competition in the Republican Primary also had an opinion:

We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” he wrote in a press statement. "This is a war,” the Texan senator said earlier Tuesday during a hastily arranged press conference in D.C., adding that the U.S. military needs to use “full force and fury” against ISIS in response.

Shame.  (Though some have argued there's not enough shame going around).

During the 1950s, while the Cold War was ongoing, Senator Joseph McCarthy unleashed an extraordinary campaign to uncover communist spies that had infiltrated various agencies and arms of the United States government.  McCarthyism, as it became known, was ultimately exposed to be a malicious witch-hunt, designed to do nothing but scapegoat political enemies and spread fear and distrust.  You didn't have to nail the analogies section on the SAT to see the connection I'm trying to make here.  

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In political science, a concept exists known as the "Rally 'Round the Flag Effect," whereby certain events, usually a crisis, cause the population at-large to rally around the leader while the crisis is ongoing. Some scholars believe this occurred in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and, unsurprisingly, since then, the GOP has become associated as the party proactively driven by homeland security concerns.

On September 20, 2001, nine days after the Twin Towers fell, then-President George W. Bush said the following: 

"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

Despite this comparatively moderate statement to the rhetoric being tossed around now, the knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 was (and by no means is this list exhaustive) two wars that cost the American taxpayers somewhere between $4 and 6 trillion, the systematic and rapid proliferation of the NSA's domestic spying program, the creation of security measures (i.e., the TSA) which have been proven to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors, and the slow but steady increase in Islamophobia, linked to Americans' distaste of the aforementioned wars.

And here we are in 2016 with each of these issues converging in a perfect storm.  Two candidates for President of the United States have built platforms rooted in fear and xenophobia. One of them wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and the other is Ted Cruz (who is not interested in the whole separation of church and state thing), currently trailing by over 300 delegates in the primary contest. By stoking the fire that burns after tragic attacks like Brussels, both are hoping to rally people around their respective campaigns.   

A lot hangs in the balance in 2016: the viability of the Affordable Care Act, the makeup of the Supreme Court for the next 30-40 years, whether anything can be done to close the wage gap and income inequality, and control of the 115th United States Congress.   So too is our national identity (read: "that all men are created equal") and whether we've learned anything from turning emotional, knee-jerk reactions into domestic policy.

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