If you want to be president of the United States in these dangerous times, you better understand that terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. Terrorist groups use spectacular forms of violence to make it seem they are far more powerful than they really are. Governments are often duped into overreacting to terrorism, causing more harm to themselves than a terrorist group ever could.
Donald Trump has demonstrated over and over again this campaign season that he is an easy mark.
ISIS attacks. Then Trump proposes responses that would harm the U.S. far more than ISIS could ever do itself.
First, of course, is Trump’s secret plan to defeat ISIS. We have been assured it will be tough and it will quickly destroy the group. The only way to achieve both of these objectives would be a huge insertion of American military on the ground to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which is exactly what ISIS has been pining for.
ISIS wants to portray itself as the protector of the Muslim people against the invading Western infidels. ISIS has a big problem when the people fighting against it are Muslims, which is what is happening now on the ground in Iraq and Syria. However, if ISIS’s territory in Syria and Iraq (what it calls a “caliphate”) is taken away by an invading U.S. army, ISIS will score a propaganda victory. Trump would quickly do what ISIS cannot possibly do itself – make ISIS the victim in the eyes of some of the world’s Muslims.
Trump has also responded to attacks like the ones in New York, New Jersey and Minneapolis this week by calling for a ban on immigration by Muslims to the U.S. This overt religious discrimination against the world’s second-largest religion would inflict a huge wound on the U.S. that ISIS, on its own, could never dream of perpetrating.
Barely lifting a finger, ISIS would have reversed the U.S.’s image, cultivated over centuries, of being a beacon of hope and refuge for those subject to religious and other forms of persecution around the world. The policy would also drive a wedge between the U.S. and the governments of Muslim majority nations, many of which are our allies and trading partners. With fewer friends and less economic activity, we would be a less powerful and less prosperous nation.
Lastly, Trump has responded to attacks by calling for law enforcement to conduct surveillance of Muslims based not on suspicion that they are engaged in criminal activity, but solely on their religion. By prompting this reaction, again without spending a nickel, ISIS would have struck a heavy blow by undermining a core value of our pluralistic society. Our success as an exceptionally diverse nation is based on the principle that no group will be singled out for mistreatment based on such things as race, ethnicity or religion. Damaging this principle for one group breeds suspicion and distrust among all others. Internal social discord weakens America.
The immigration ban and profiling policy send a message around the globe that the world’s most open, successful and welcoming democracy is essentially closed to Muslims. This echoes the ISIS recruitment strategy. ISIS tries to convince Muslims in the West every day on Twitter and other social media platforms that pious Muslims will never be fully accepted in the U.S. and Europe. ISIS wants Muslims to believe the only place they will be able to practice true Islam is in the ISIS caliphate. By banning Muslim immigration and institutionalizing Muslim profiling, we would be ratifying ISIS’s message as true.
Trump is advocating his counterproductive policies because he believes religious-based immigration control and surveillance will reduce the number of attacks. But this is incorrect as well. The more we isolate Muslim-Americans and discriminate against them, the more likely a small subset of this population will become disaffected and latch on to ISIS’s violent ideas as a means of political protest and activism. And the more we cast suspicion on Muslim-Americans, the harder it will be to encourage them to identify the small number of individuals in their communities that may be radicalizing to violence.
So Trump’s policies will weaken America and lead to more terrorist attacks.
Not great, believe me.
David Schanzer is a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.