There’s a new tradition in American politics. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, a Republican politician offers up a xenophobic, quasi-illegal, and counter-productive response.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, a few prominent Republicans like Lindsey Graham suggested denying American terror suspects basic civil liberty protections. After Paris and San Bernardino, there were first calls to stop Syrian Muslim refugees from entering the country and later, courtesy of Donald Trump, a ban against all Muslims.
But this week, after the tragic suicide bombing attacks in Brussels, Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz one-upped them all.
Not content to let Trump get all the limelight with his calls for bringing back waterboarding and Muslim bans, Cruz suggested that the time had come to “patrol and secure” American Muslim communities. Rather than scapegoat all Muslims, Cruz is now narrowing his gaze to actual American Muslims.
This is an odious idea, but it’s also a rather strange one. First, in the 15 years since 9/11, there is little evidence of widespread radicalization among American Muslims. Yes, there have been isolated incidents, such as the Fort Hood massacre and the San Bernardino shooting, but these are the exception, not the rule. But in Belgium and France, Muslims are often isolated, have fewer economic opportunities, and face challenges in assimilating. It has created a wellspring of jihadist sentiment in both countries. Indeed, that’s part of the reason that Europe has been witness to these attacks, rather than the United States — jihadist ideology simply hasn’t taken hold here, and in large measure because Muslims are more fully assimilated into American society.
So if Cruz’s goal is to cultivate radicalization, convince American Muslims that they are second-class citizens and potentially drive them into the hands of ISIS, he has come up with one great idea.
But of course, Cruz’s idea is not about stopping the next terrorist attack; it’s about winning votes.
His proposal is almost certainly unconstitutional, and would likely be in conflict with both the 5th and 14th amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Considering that Cruz went to Harvard Law School, was formerly solicitor general in Texas and regularly attacks President Obama for his alleged violations of the Constitution, one would think he’d be more respectful of constitutional protections.
Yet, what is perhaps most surprising about Cruz’s proposal is that it does the near impossible: it makes Donald Trump look like an Islamaphobic lightweight. Make no mistake, Trump’s Muslim ban is an abhorrent idea; but Cruz’s talk of singling out American Muslims is worse. It’s political scapegoating of the vilest kind.
Terror events like what we saw in Brussels are frightening to Americans; they are especially frightening to Republican voters, who after years of being told by the party leaders that terrorism is an existential threat are much more concerned about the issue than Democrats. There is no better way to play on those anxieties then by intimating that American Muslims are a fifth column, poised to blow themselves up in airports and train stations proposals. That’s why Cruz is offering a grubby proposal intended to win a few votes between now and the Republican convention in Cleveland.
To their credit, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton condemned calls for targeting Muslims, with Sanders tweeting out that “it’s important we not succumb to bigotry” and Clinton warning against the undermining of America’s democratic values, in response to terrorist attacks.
But of course, this is what you’re supposed to say. Their words are only notable because of the cravenness of Cruz and Trump and their brazen willingness to use unmistakably xenophobic tropes to cultivate support among Republican voters. Trump and Cruz are selling ideas, not for stopping terrorism, but for discarding the values that make America great.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.