In the more than 16 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Americans were as likely to be killed by falling televisions or lightning strikes as they were terrorists. Yet this has not stopped Americans — and, in particular, American politicians — from paying outsized attention and responding hysterically to the threat from jihadist terrorism. Indeed, it is quite fitting that this week’s terrorist attack in New York City — only blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood — has produced one of the more over-the-top responses in recent memory.
Leading the charge, of course, was America’s Tweeter in Chief who, hours after a man drove a truck on a New York City bike lane, killing eight people and injuring 11 others, quickly took to his preferred communication platform to describe the tragedy as “another attack by a very sick and deranged person.” The president pledged to prevent ISIS from returning or entering America and punctuated his tweet with a Trump-style “ENOUGH!”
The next morning, he upped the ante by accusing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of “helping to import Europe’s problems” by supporting a visa program that allowed the suspected terrorist to enter the country. This isn’t true, but that the president of the United States would blame a member of his rival party for a terrorist attack is one of the more unseemly political attacks you will ever see — and in our outrage-soaked political environment was quickly forgotten.
Then Trump waded into even darker and more dangerous territory, calling for “punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now.”
“We need quick justice and we need strong justice,” said Trump, “because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock.”
Ironically, Trump would severely undermine any effort to bring the perpetrator of this heinous crime to justice by twice tweeting out calls for the “death penalty,” which could end up prejudicing the jury in any future trial.
Trump’s assault on the justice system is, however, par for the course in today’s Republican Party. Indeed, in the hours after the attack in New York, Senator Lindsey Graham said it shows that America is in a “religious war” (it’s not) and called for the suspect to be held as an “enemy combatant.”
John McCain took a similar position and added the remarkable statement that “there’s no Miranda rights for someone who kills Americans.”
Talk of quicker and more severe punishments — and bypassing constitutional protections — is an argument against the rule of law and in support of extrajudicial outcomes. This is the way authoritarians and fascists talk. But as has so often been the case for the past two years, Republicans are content with shredding constitutional protections and undermining long-held political norms. Trump is just willing to go further.
It seems almost unnecessary to point out that the Republican response is the opposite of demands made after 58 people were killed and nearly 550 wounded in a mass shooting four weeks ago for “thoughts and prayers” and a refrain from “politicization.” But as we’ve learned over the past 16 years, any opportunity to wring political advantage out of the latest terrorist outrage is one that no Republican politician seems willing to pass up.
This outsized focus on the alleged dangers of terrorism is precisely how demagogues use fear as a political tool – and, in particular, fear of “others.” Indeed, one of Trump’s most striking comments came when the president was asked on Tuesday if he believed that any member of the alleged terrorist’s family could represent a threat: He said, “They could.” This is the kind of question (and response) that no one would ever think to utter about, for example, the Las Vegas shooter, who was white and male and not Muslim.
In Trump’s words and in the political cover being provided to him by prominent foreign policy voices within the GOP, we are getting a troubling preview of what the response might be if the United States were ever hit by a 9/11-style attack. As we saw after that tragedy, such moments of intense national trauma provide vast opportunities for political leaders to amass power and implement policies that undermine constitutional protections. Sept. 11 brought us torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention (including of American citizens), and, of course, foreign wars fought under false pretenses. Now we have a president even less concerned about democratic niceties like the rule of law and basic political norms.
Sixteen years later, the response to a tragic terrorist incident in New York is yet one more reminder that the infantalization of the American people by the minor threat of jihadist terrorism continues unabated. And in Trump’s response, we see why this remains so uniquely dangerous.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.