Fear is the Thing

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February 13, 2017

I regret that this article is so long, but it seems important.

Like so many others, my response to Trump’s executive order closing the borders to persons from certain Muslim countries, whether refugees, vetted and holding visas, or those who were already legal residents, was to the human aspects of it, the contempt for fairness, the brutal indifference to what this would do to families who had waited years, to students already studying in the United States, all who had played by the rules but who were abruptly turned back. 

The reason given was that there might be terrorists among them. No matter how minuscule the likelihood of that being true, the president ordered the borders closed. The real reason was because, though only president for 7 days, he wanted to show his supporters what he could do. Almost anything was his belief.

It brought to my mind one of the most shameful episodes of US History: the turning away of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. The fear mongers of that age, demagogues, Anti-Semites posing as American patriots, claimed that there were, that there might be, Nazi’s among them. So hundreds of thousands of Jews were refused visas. Thousands were actually turned away at the very door of the “nation of immigrants” and sent back perish in the gas chambers. The Archbishop of Chicago, Blaise Cupich, had this in mind when on January 27 he issued this statement:

This weekend proved to be a dark moment in US history. The executive order to turn away refugees and to close our nation to those, particularly Muslims, fleeing violence, oppression and persecution is contrary to both Catholic and American values. Have we not repeated the disastrous decisions of those in the past who turned away other people fleeing violence, leaving certain ethnicities and religions marginalized and excluded?

I have many reasons for opposing the immigration ban, but for the humanitarian reason alone, the persistence of my share of the collective shame about America’s refusal to respond to suffering in World War II, I was passionately opposed to the Trump order and was, therefore, much relieved when the 9th Court of Appeals ruled that the entry of already approved refugees could continue.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling affirmed a number of important things: that executive did not have unfettered powers and that its actions were subject to judicial review; that a state had the standing to sue the federal government (states in a federal system have rights); and that the due process clause of the 5th Amendment had not been observed. Arbitrary removal of a right already granted, even to a non-citizen (established by precedents cited in the order) was, under the 5th Amendment, unconstitutional. The law, the rule of law, had for the moment prevailed. A check on the powers of the executive, exactly as the founders had intended, had worked, the famous “checks and balances” of the Constitution.

As the days went by there was an issue that nagged at me. I wondered how, under what color of evidence, under the influence of what sort of ideology or belief system, could the President justify conflating families from Syria—we saw them on the TV broadcasts wailing as they were turned back, or beaming when, later, they were reunited with their relatives who already live in the United States—with terrorism.

What was the circumstance that prompted an emergency order? I went back to the 9th Circuit’s ruling and saw that they had had the same concern. The government had not presented evidence of any threat from any of those blocked at the border. They were not, in fact, terrorists. They were human beings fleeing violence and suffering. There was no emergency.

Yet Trump pressed on. The issue was terrorism and fear. His intention was that the willing consumers of his tweets, his supporters, should, feel afraid. He tweeted,

Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!

One stumbles for a moment on the absurdity of “people pouring in.” There may have been as many as 1000 people who were directly affected in that they already had airline tickets or had already arrived in the US. Some 13,000 Muslim asylum seekers were resettled in the US in 2016, a larger number of Christians in the same year, most from the war-torn regions of the Middle East. These numbers that are a drop in the bucket for a nation with a population of 324, 762,000 people. What is striking, however, is the phrase “in such peril.”

Such peril, indeed. Be afraid. Trump peddles fear. He states that the rate of murder and violent crime is at the highest it has been in 45 years. In fact, it is at its lowest measured in the same period and has been declining steadily since 1990. Trump glowers and scowls. In his dark inaugural address, he spoke of “carnage” which only he can fix or repair. No Spring Time in Trump’s vision. Just danger. And there is his anger.

The tirade concerning the court decisions continued. One after another. The President is in a rage:

When a country is no longer able to say who can and who cannot come in and out, especially for reasons of safety and security—big trouble!

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

We must keep “evil” out of our country!

Yet, if one was really looking, one noted that the country was in no greater danger than it had been before his January 27 Executive Order. No acts of terrorism had been committed—a mass shooting Columbine style, however, with an assault rifle, by two Florida teens—who were not Muslims—was prevented on that day by good police work—and no Muslims had been arrested for any reason other than jaywalking. So why was the President in such a rage?

Because “the country” cannot do what it wants, because a power has been taken away from “our country.” But Trump doesn’t really mean the “country” does he? He means the President, and by President he means Himself, Donald Trump. He has been thwarted and, like most three-year-olds, he has a tantrum. One might mock if it weren’t so terribly serious and dangerous.

The other thing one notices in the tweet storm above is that he appears to crave the very thing that he promises to save us from, an act of terror. But an act of terror would do him no harm; it would justify him, confirm what he has been saying all along, validate himself as the man who would save us but was prevented from doing so by ridiculous courts and by ridiculous laws. Time to get rid of ridiculous courts and laws.

The terrible truth is that Trump does not care a whit about saving or protecting us. He cares only for power. He wants to rule and wants no interference and no opposition. If he really wanted to protect “the country” from violence a useful step would be to ban the sale of assault weapons.

I go back to February of 1933, when an act of terror—attributed to radical left-wing opposition—set the Weimar parliament building, the Reichstag, on fire. The terrified parliament passed “the Enabling Act” which, in the language of the act itself made it

…permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephone communications. Warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits…

Hitler was especially concerned about press coverage that was “unfriendly” to his regime and the Nazi Party. Trump wants the press to be “nice” to him. The Enabling Act allowed Hitler to rule by decree. Decree, Diktat, from which “dictator.” Fear worked for Hitler. It brought him to power and he held power with it.

Hermann Goering, the Nazi second-in-command, said in a 1945 interview from prison, as he waited for his execution,

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.”

In a future article, I will go back to this, the role of crises, real or invented, in allowing the rule of law to be overturned and tyrants take charge.

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