Shadowboxing: How Trump’s war on Muslims threatens us all

If there’s a particular portion of President Trump’s inaugural speech that has stuck with me, it’s this line in particular:

And unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

And so back once more to the Bush-era “War on Terror.” Which leaves Trump confronting the very same problem that bedeviled Republicans then:

How exactly does one go about eradicating an idea?

Oh, sure, you can destroy ISIS – which probably won’t be easy, because ten to one Putin already secretly shoring them up somehow as a bright shiny bauble to keep Trump distracted (that’s certainly what I’d be doing in his shoes) – but then what? ISIS is just the latest in a series of like-minded organizations, remember. So perhaps after that, he’ll move onto Al-Qaeda once more, then perhaps the entire Syrian rebellion as a whole, presuming he follows Putin and Assad’s lead in declaring them all terrorists and enemies. But inevitably, some other new group will rise up, and the whole cycle will start all over again, leading to the same old endless game of military whack-a-mole[1].

But – again – then what? Ideas are bulletproof. Violence and collateral damage inevitably motivates more terrorists. So where does it end?

For years, Obama’s strategy emphasized tolerance and freedom of religion. His argument went that it’s those ideals that are America’s greatest strength, and what religious zealots like bin Laden and al-Awlaki really found threatening about us – the idea that it’s possible for people to simply live their lives without fighting over theology or differing points of view. Obama’s hope was that, by stressing that there’s a place for Muslims in a multicultural world, sooner or later the radicals would calm down and just stick to screaming at people in Internet forums, the way most of us do[2]. Even Bush paid homage to this idea, hollow as it tended to ring after the invasion of Iraq, because he knew that his wars could only be won with the support of Muslim individuals and countries.

But Trump and his supporters categorically reject this notion. Notice the word choice of ‘Islamic terrorism,’ which Rudy Giuliani spent years making a big deal over. What’s the point of that, aside from general-level rudeness and being all ‘politically incorrect’? It’s of course to emphasize the innate connection between Islam and terrorism – the idea that violence is intrinsic to Islam, and that peace is thus ultimately impossible. Most Trump supporters online tend to buy in big to the entire so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ usually as a way of emphasizing what they see as Christianity’s innate superiority as a religion. (In them, one can see that strain of Puritan zealotry that’s been a part of America from the very beginning – Christianity’s own jihad memes coming active after years of relative dormancy[3].) They see a modern-day crusade as being both inevitable and advantageous, something that will allow them to finally put the heathens in their place and assure American energy independence via “taking their oil,” as our President so eloquently put it.

So… doesn’t that put them on a (possibly unnecessary, highly destructive) collision course with the more than one billion Muslims living the world today? What do they intend to do about all the people who refuse to follow their way of life?

In my experience, that question usually marks the point where Trump supporters start talking about nuclear weapons. It makes sense from their point of view. Whether they care to admit it or not, genocide is the logical conclusion of their belief set. The only way to truly eradicate an idea, after all, is to kill everyone who has it (or might have it, or might someday come up with it) inside their heads.

Does Trump believe as they do? My guess is that it varies from day to day. As I’ve said before, I don’t see him as someone who’s necessarily opposed to diversity – he’s had no trouble renting properties to Saudi royalty in the past, if memory serves – and he’s certainly no Christian. (Worship of God distracts from worship of himself, I suspect.) But he certainly hasn’t been shy about using Islamophobia to his advantage, and – as we have been seeing in recent days – there’s really no way to predict where and how he’s going to lash out when he’s under stress. Or how far he’s willing to go.

Zealots feed off of one another. I doubt would-be Christian jihadists are aware of how similar they are to their foes[4]. They need Muslims to be the great Satanic horde at their doorstep in order for their worldview to make sense, just as ISIS needs to brag on Twitter about sacking Rome and fighting the Crusaders at Dabiq. As a whole, they tend not to be too cognizant of history, riddled as it is with would-be prophets and soldiers of destiny, left befuddled when reality ultimately failed to follow the script they expected. If there is a God and He does have a plan for us, I tend to doubt it’s anything so easily transparent or predictable to our tiny minds. Maybe all the prophecies will come true someday, but in the present, there’s little sense or reason in killing for them.

But here they go, rushing off to war anyway – while all the rest of us, the ones who believe in a multicultural world, in living and let live and allowing people to be who they are, who honestly believe in the Founding Fathers’ vision – those of us who have seen it work and lived it and know that peace is possible, that peace needs to happen for humanity to move forward – we just get tossed aside into the dust. Left behind to deal with the consequences of their madness, as the world just keeps on stubbornly refusing to end.

Independent counts of Iraqi civilian casualties killed after the invasion put the number at just over one hundred thousand deaths. I see that as blood on my own hands – on the hands of all Americans, really. That’s how collective responsibility works. I might not have voted for Bush… but I didn’t do anything to stop him either.

That’s not a mistake I would like to make twice.

  1. Which, to be fair, we probably would have wound up playing under Hillary, too, albeit perhaps in a much more measured and less visibly brutal way. And probably without all the Big Macho verbs that right wingers thrive on, like “annihilate” and “exterminate.” ↩︎

  2. Which isn’t to say that Obama didn’t keep the pressure up on Al-Qaeda and company through drone strikes and the like, because he’s not an idiot. Republicans love to criticize his actions in Libya, Syria, and during the Arab Spring, but they’ve been surprisingly quiet on what exactly they would’ve done differently – aside, of course, from those who would’ve Killed All The Bad Guys and Taken Their Oil. Needless to say, I find the wisdom of their plans questionable. ↩︎

  3. I expect that this is part of the motive behind the American right’s current love affair with Putin. They see him as a fellow Christian, in origin if not in action; a Great White Hope that knows how to properly slaughter the infidels, as he’s done in Syria and Chechnya. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that Putin might not see the world the way they do. If Putin’s leading a crusade against anything, it’s American influence in one form or another. One wonders if Trump realizes – or cares – that he’s just another pawn in that game. ↩︎

  4. Or perhaps they are, and they fear the bin Ladens of the world precisely because they think alike. To put it another way, maybe Christian and Jewish fundamentalists hostile to Islam believe on some level that if they had been raised Muslim, they would be jihadists. It’s a sort of psychological projection, a way of externalizing their own destructive impulses. Perhaps the minds of Muslim crusaders work the same way, and the entire conflict is just about zealots shadowboxing with each other. Wouldn’t that just figure. ↩︎


Yes, Trump Is A Racist

This recent op-ed on crystallizes a number of thoughts I’ve had about the election, though it may not go quite far enough. To make things absolutely clear to Mr. Matt Vespa and other Trump apologists: yes, Mr. Trump is in fact a racist. Just ask the Central Park Five. To insist otherwise is to require people to forget that the President-elect first came to prominence at the head of the Birther movement – a perfect example of coded racism if there ever was one – and his comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Latino heritage, just for starters.

(Well, okay, let’s get specific here – at the heart of things, I suspect that Trump is racist against all humans who aren’t Donald Trump. That said, that’s never stopped him from taking advantage of race, gender and creed to bully others or to raise his own profile. Indeed, it seems to me that’s the exact attribute that raised him to both the candidacy and the Presidency. In any case, the point is that I call him a racist for his actions, not his beliefs, or at least whatever he believes his beliefs are at the moment.)

At the heart of all of this, I suspect that it all comes down to a matter of power. Conservatives seem to believe that they can define what is and isn’t racist at their convenience, and that they can force the country’s minorities to accept their self-serving definitions as a matter of course. To them, I would ask: has it ever honestly occurred to you that such decisions aren’t up to you? That even if you decide not to read your actions in that fashion, that America’s minorities very well might? Indeed, sharing that power as to what is and isn’t acceptable is the entire point of racism as a concept. It’s part of the never-ending negotiation process that allows the nation to continue to function without us murdering one another. To deny the other side a voice in such an exchange strikes me as… unwise.

(And no, Ben Carson alone most certainly does not qualify as enough representation. So please don’t start.)

So where does that leave Trump’s voters? Whatever their reasons might have been at the time, they still made the decision to vote for him. As far as I’m concerned, they voted against the very concept of America that I grew up with – the idea of a multicultural nation, where such things as race and religion and national origin simply don’t matter with regards to an individual’s rights and freedoms. They may not be running around waving Confederate flags, but they knowingly enabled those who are. (They certainly don’t seem to be stopping them.) They can deny it as much as they want, but like it or not, everything that comes after this point is on their hands. Don’t want that to be the case? Best get to work tearing that false idol you raised down.


Waiting for Sharpeville

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sharpeville.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 was a seminal moment in the history of modern South Africa. During a demonstration against the apartheid government, police officers opened fire into the crowd. Over sixty people died. In the aftermath of the incident, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress decided that they could no longer remain a non-violent movement. Blood had been shed. It was clear that more would be required before the matter was finished.

I first learned about Sharpeville in the course of my long and mostly useless liberal arts education. Ever since then, I’ve found myself occasionally thinking back and wondering… what would it take? What would be required for me to take up arms against my own country, the way Mandela did? To turn a normal, reasonable person into a violent killer?

To become – and let’s be completely honest with ourselves here – a terrorist[1]?

The thought has taken up a new urgency in my mind since the election. I’m sure than many will tell me – and indeed many have – that I am overreacting. Still, it seems to me that the President-elect is a uniquely petty and unrestrained personality, of the sort that has never occupied the Oval Office before. He most likely will have the Senate and the House behind him. He and his supporters have actively discussed the end of freedom of religion in this country in a way that’s unprecedented in the last hundred years of history. Only time will tell at this point how seriously they intend to pursue their goals. At the moment, I see little reason for optimism.

So what would it take? What lines would have to be crossed?

First, non-violent protest and resistance must be tried – after, not before, the President-elect assumes office. This is non-negotiable for me. Violence must be the last resort. This is what in my mind separates the ANC from other terrorist organizations and movements, even if Mandela himself did not necessarily see things that way. The war between the Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, has been violent from the beginning – a fact that has cost the PLO and Hamas dearly, whether or not they care to acknowledge it. Speaking personally, I distrust those activists and wannabee revolutionaries who are eager for violence and hungry for glory. They imagine civil war to be something different than it is, which is, simply put, hell on earth – inflicted on one’s friends, family and home, in a way that most Americans, including myself, cannot even begin to conceive of. So before that step is taken, everything else must be tried. Roads must be blocked. Public transit must be disrupted. Elections must be lost. I tend to be of the mind that if you’re going to ask a lot of people to suffer and die for a cause, you at the very least owe it to them to exhaust every possible alternative first.

Second, there must be a clear downward trajectory. For all the Nazi comparisons that have inevitably been made regarding the President-elect’s ascension to power, I don’t see him as likely to be an actively genocidal figure. Too much work. My sense of Trump is that he’s a particular breed of New York racist. He’s used to diversity on every street corner, so long as – ahem – ‘certain people’ remember to stick to their own neighborhoods. So I think we’re more likely to see a scenario similar to apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow era. A telling sign will be if the President-elect decides to force the registration of all Muslims citizens in the United States, as he appeared to propose in the early days of his campaign. We may also see laws subtly aimed at curbing the freedom of movement of Muslims, blacks, immigrants, and other political undesirables. That being said, historically, the pattern of American racism has been to remove restrictions rather than impose them – in other words, to give the population and/or individual states the ‘freedom’ to abuse outsiders, as opposed to foisting repressive measures from the top-down. Look for the repeal or revision of civil rights legislation, as well as the reversal of judicial decisions intended to protect minorities from hate crimes and other forms of persecution. Keep an eye out as well for the formation of ‘unofficial’ militias and third-party hate groups that might be tasked with the administration’s dirty work. (Mr. Putin has used such tactics to great effect in Russia and Ukraine.)

Third, there must be an inciting incident – a Sharpeville moment. A point where the administration uses a clearly excessive level of brutality and force to enforce its will. Another Kent State massacre, another Ludlow. Do people have to die for something to be a Sharpeville? Yes, I think so. Only death can justify more death. How many? At least five or six would be my guess. I expect that would be the bare minimum required for the public to so much as sit up and take notice. Those who die must be unarmed[2]. They must be specifically protesting the policies of the administration. Ideally, the executioners should be tied to the President somehow – National Guardsmen or government-affiliated militia, rather than state or local police – in order to clearly establish command responsibility. However, this does not necessarily need to be the case.

The aftermath will also be key. The administration must either be defiant and/or callously indifferent as opposed to conciliatory – a situation that’s not exactly hard to imagine. The media response, on the other hand, will be predictable. Expect Fox News and administration-affiliated media to immediately try to cloud the picture from the start, to pin the blame on the victims as best they can, much in the way the apartheid government claimed after Sharpeville that the protestors had been throwing rocks. At that point, however, it won’t matter. A line will have been crossed, whether or not people care to admit it. Blood on the ground. More to follow.

I imagine that would be right about when my patience would run out.

This is not a prediction. This is not the way I necessarily expect things to go. Instead, it’s exactly what I said: the bare minimum requirements it would take to make me honestly consider violent resistance. Even then, I tend to think there’s a right and wrong way to go about doing things – tactics that should or should not be applied. But that’s a topic for another time.

In a situation like this, I think it’s a mistake to allow oneself to be manipulated by your enemy into making the first move. Frustrating as it is, you have to let them fire the first shot. People – good people, maybe even you or me – will have to suffer and die. This is necessary because, again, the kind of war we’re talking about is not something to be taken lightly. It involves the complete breakdown of everything we take for granted in our modern lives – from food to power to medical care. I tend to suspect that any movement with something like that on its hands will be at a severe psychological disadvantage.

For the time being, I suppose my advice is the same as everyone else’s: Keep your head down and your eyes open. Consider everything that you hear but completely trust little of it. Wait, as one Farrokh Mercury[3] once said, for the hammer to fall.

And ask yourself: what would it take?

  1. The word of course has a variety of meanings and associations, from ‘political or religious extremist’ to ‘person who a government dislikes.’ Understand that when I say ‘terrorist,’ I’m using the (perhaps overtly punctilious) dictionary definition of the term: an individual who uses fear and intimidation in order to accomplish political objectives. ↩︎

  2. This part is absolutely key. Note that this is what distinguishes a true Sharpeville from events like the Waco siege of 1993. ↩︎

  3. Well, technically Brian May. But Freddie still sang it. ↩︎