Questions For Hillary and Donald

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is Monday, September 26, at 9pm.  Here are some questions I would like to ask both candidates:

Mrs. Clinton:  On policy, do voters have any reason to think you won’t be serving President Obama’s third term?

Mr. Trump:  Is it true—as one of your ex-wives has claimed—that you once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches as your bedside reading?  If so, what did you learn from them?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said there is no conflict between your pledge to regulate big banks and the fact that you have received millions of dollars in speaking fees from those same banks.  Do you truly not understand why many Americans cannot take your “tough on Wall Street” posture seriously?

Mr. Trump:  You have praised President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of U.S. citizens being illegally detained and deported because they were of Mexican descent.  Do you also support President Roosevelt’s initiative to hold more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in internment camps because they were of Japanese descent?

Mrs. Clinton:  You consider yourself a champion of the LGBT community.  However, you publicly opposed full marriage rights for same-sex couples until March 2013—exactly one month after retiring as Secretary of State.  When did you decide that gay people are equal to straight people with regards to marriage, and did it ever cross your mind that supporting marriage equality as America’s chief diplomat might have been helpful to the LGBT community?

Mr. Trump:  Earlier this year, you suggested that any woman who has had an abortion should be punished in some way.  Do you still think that today?  If not, what made you change your mind?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have expressed regret for saying that one-half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”  Upon reflection, what do you believe the true figure to be, and how will you win the trust of those people once in office?

Mr. Trump:  When physical violence erupted at several of your campaign rallies, you lamented how such clashes don’t happen more often, saying, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”  How do you reconcile this philosophy with your pledge to bring “law and order” to America’s most violent cities?

Mrs. Clinton:  Why do you think you lost the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama?  If you lose the 2016 election to Trump, do you think it will be for the same reasons?

Mr. Trump:  In an interview, you claimed to be a highly religious person on the grounds that many evangelical Christians support you.  Are you religious in any other respect?

Mrs. Clinton:  If it were politically feasible, would you repeal the Second Amendment?

Mr. Trump:  You have disavowed the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  Is there anything you two actually disagree about?

Mrs. Clinton:  Are you ever concerned about your propensity for appearing to have violated the law, even when, in fact, you haven’t?  Whom do you most blame for this perception—the voters or yourself?

Mr. Trump:  If a poll came out tomorrow saying that a majority of your supporters now oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, would you drop the whole idea and never mention it again?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said you regret using a private e-mail server because of all the trouble it has caused your campaign.  Is that the only reason for your regret?

Mr. Trump:  You say you have a plan to defeat ISIS, but you intend to keep it a secret until after you win the election.  If Clinton wins instead, are you going to keep it a secret from her as well?

Mrs. Clinton:  Is there any major issue about which you think the majority of the public is dead wrong?  If so, have you ever said so in public?

Mr. Trump:  In your convention speech, you said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  If that’s the case, why didn’t you run in 2012?  Or 2008?  Or 2004?

Mrs. Clinton:  During the primaries, you opposed Bernie Sanders’s plan to make all public colleges tuition-free, arguing it would just be too darned expensive.  If you believed, in 2003, that it was worth funding the Iraq War with money we didn’t have, why doesn’t the same standard apply to higher education?

Mr. Trump:  You once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”  Where did you come by this information and why haven’t you shared it with the generals?

Mrs. Clinton:  In recently hacked e-mails, Colin Powell wrote of you, “Everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”  Did it surprise you to read this?

Mr. Trump:  The screenwriter of the Back of the Future movies recently revealed that the character Biff Tannen was largely based on you.  Do you take this as a compliment?

Mrs. Clinton:  Have you ever consciously lied to the American people?  If so, why?

Mr. Trump:  Based on how casually and frequently you have completely reversed your position on one issue after another, why should anyone believe a single word you say?

Mrs. Clinton:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might lose?

Mr. Trump:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might win?

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Whodunit?

There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.

Cruz Out of Control

Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?

In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me.  After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian:  In the end, why not just call it a tie?

Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own.  While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.

Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”

If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day.  (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?)  Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away.  (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)

Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet.  You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.

Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question:  Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?

Answer:  Absolutely not.  A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt.  If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.

Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.

Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try.  He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it.  While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.

Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front.  From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president.  And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.

Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all:  Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.

Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz.  As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).

Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP.  Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?

It seemed like an insane gambit at the time:  Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?

As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way.  While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout.  For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.

In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end.  Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.

While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race.  All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.

Why is this fight different from all other fights?  Easy:  Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.

To wit:  When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.

Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence.  By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party.  It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read:  being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.

Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.

Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”  While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women.  There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.

Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence.  Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS:  “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it.  (At least not after we leave Iowa.)

It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody.  How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared.  How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.

Fasten your seatbelts, citizens.  It’s gonna be a bumpy year.

Night and Day

If there is one thing I have learned for sure about Hillary Clinton, it’s that she is both better and worse than everyone seems to think.

Worse because of her ongoing paranoia, deceit and iron-fistedness vis-à-vis her quest for the Oval Office.

Better because of her wit, intelligence, compassion and jaw-dropping stamina as they relate to the exact same goal.

In the spring of 2008, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I petulantly griped about how Hillary Clinton has a way of getting under your skin even as you find yourself agreeing with most of what she stands for.  How her single-mindedness and love-hate relationship with rules and facts tend to overshadow her finer qualities, even for those who are otherwise prepared to accept her as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Re-reading that article seven-and-a-half years later, I am somewhat alarmed by how well it holds up.  While my writing has matured (arguably), my hang-ups about a potential President Clinton Part II were pretty much exactly the same then as they are now.  They include:  Her penchant for making up stories when the truth is readily available for all to see; her brazen disregard for the rules whenever they are inconvenient; and her tendency, in any case, to exacerbate the little scandals that pop up whenever she is in power, invariably by blaming the whole thing on her would-be enemies, be they Republicans, foreign governments or a White House intern.

All of those quirks still apply, and must forever be held in consideration when one endorses Clinton for president or any other office.  As ever, a vote for Hillary is a vote for all the baggage that comes with her.  And that’s before we get into the issues that involve actual substance.  As the enduring success of Bernie Sanders demonstrates, there remains a great minority of Democratic primary voters who consider Clinton the wrong candidate at the wrong time and who, should she become the party’s nominee, might even stay home on Election Day rather than pull the lever for her.

Against all of that, however, I come bearing news:  Politics has changed a lot over the last two election cycles and we no longer have the luxury to vote only for candidates we like.  When and if we make it to November 8, 2016, most of us will be faced with two people whom we don’t particularly want to be president, but we’ll need to choose one of them all the same, because that’s how elections work.

I know:  This sounds like a “lesser of two evils” lecture.  It’s not, because presidential campaigns are not a choice between two evils.  Deciding to ally with Stalin against Hitler—that was a choice between two evils.  When we vote for a commander-in-chief, the decision is between not just individuals, but two opposing philosophies of how to run the government of the most important republic in the world.  There’s nothing evil about it, but the choice is stark nonetheless—now more than ever before.

If you think there is no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats, you’re not paying close enough attention.  If you’re unwilling to vote for either because their candidates just aren’t perfect enough, you’re a child and a fool.

Last Saturday’s Democratic debate drew only a fraction of the audience of any GOP contest this year.  That’s a real shame, because, if nothing else, it affirmed Bill Maher’s observation in 2008 that to see both parties talk, it’s as if they’re running for president of two completely different countries.

Case in point:  At the most recent Republican forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that 9/11 happened yesterday and that terrorism is the only thing worth caring about when it comes to the welfare of the United States and its citizens.  It was practically the only subject that came up, while such things as the economy, health care, infrastructure and even immigration received little more than a passing shout-out from any of the nine candidates.

The Dems spent plenty of time on terrorism, too—the San Bernardino massacre made it unavoidable—but they allocated equal, if not greater, emphasis on subjects that are—let’s be honest—considerably more urgent and germane to all of us at this moment in time.  Along with the issues I just mentioned, these included gun control, race relations, income inequality, college affordability and the fact that America’s prisons are overstuffed with people whose only “crime” was getting high and having a good time.

This isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill disagreement over national priorities.  This is a dramatic, monumental clash over whether the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  The whole GOP platform has been reduced to, “Be afraid all the time, because you could die at any moment,” while the Democrats act as if tomorrow might actually come and we might as well live and govern accordingly.

Is this the lowest bar we’ve ever set in the history of presidential elections?  Possibly.  Indeed, it’s downright depressing that the very act of governing is no longer seen as a given for anyone in public office.

What is far more depressing, however, is that so many citizens seem to think it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, or that both parties are equally at fault for all of the preventable problems that have occurred throughout the Obama era.  Neither of those assumptions is true, and there are tangible consequences to thinking otherwise.

Care for some examples?  Listen to the GOP’s own rhetoric:  If a Republican is elected president next year, it means the Affordable Care Act is in danger of actual repeal, as is the nuclear agreement with Iran.  It means reversing climate change is no longer a priority, along with the rights of black people, gay people, poor people, women, immigrants, Muslims and refugees.  It means the Supreme Court will net at least one conservative justice, which could easily lead to decisions adversely affecting all of the above and more.  It means our “war” against ISIS will almost certainly escalate to include actual boots in the sand, and God knows what impact that’ll have on our national debt (to the degree that anyone cares).

I realize, of course, that America’s conservatives would be thrilled by such results, but that’s not really who I’m talking to right now.

No, I would mostly just like to remind my fellow leftists that there is a limit to what your disgust with “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton can accomplish.  Clinton is most certainly a flawed candidate, and a flawed messenger for the liberal view of good governance.  She is plainly compromised by her close relationship with the financial industry and remains insufficiently skeptical of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.  She hasn’t yet mastered the art of damage control and offers little assurance that she won’t create more damage in the future.  A second Clinton presidency would guarantee a fair share of political nonsense from the day she arrives to the day she leaves.

Know what else it would guarantee?  Health insurance for tens of millions of people.  Funding for Planned Parenthood.  Increased protections for the LGBT contingent.  A more liberal Supreme Court.

And it would guarantee our first female commander-in-chief.  Sure, I know we’re supposed to be a meritocratic society that doesn’t care about race, sex, etc., but let’s not pretend that following our First Black President with our First Woman President wouldn’t be unimpeachably gratifying.  We already know beyond doubt that a woman can manage a country at least as well as a man—perhaps you noticed that, for the last 10 years, one such woman has been more or less running all of Europe—but wouldn’t it be great to have it actually happen here?

Of course, none of this matters during the primary phase of the campaign, where we are now.  So long as Democratic voters still have a legitimate choice between Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Martin O’Malley), they have every obligation to argue about which option makes the most sense for where the party ought to be, and that choice is always a balance between ideological purity and perceived electability.  If you want Sanders as your nominee, you’d best make your case now, before it’s too late.  (I’ve already made mine.)

But should time run out and your preferred candidate lose, realize that our whole electoral system operates on the principle that the party is ultimately more important than any individual within it, which means a great number of people will be forced to compromise some of their deepest-held beliefs in the interest of party unity—because it’s better to support someone with whom you agree 60, 70 or 80 percent of the time rather than ensuring victory for someone with whom you agree not at all.

If total ideological alignment leads to total electoral defeat, then what good did those principles do you in the first place?  Republicans have been learning this lesson continuously since the moment President Obama was elected.  Are Democrats on the verge of making the same stupid mistake?

Freedom From Fear

When it comes to terrorism, how did we suddenly become such a nation of scaredy cats?

Sure, each of us has our own private set of fears—things that add unwelcome tension to our day and maybe even keep us up at night.  Some of these are perfectly rational, while others seem to have been invented from whole cloth.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly know a few things that frighten me.  Failure.  Poverty.  Writer’s block.  Cancer.  Bugs.

But you know one thing that doesn’t scare me at all?  Being killed in a terrorist attack.

On any given day, I am far more concerned about a beetle wandering into my bed than a suicide bomber wandering onto my subway car.  Why?  Because I’m a reasonably logical human being who realizes that the former is infinitely more likely than the latter, and I’m not about to waste my time fretting about every last terrible thing that could possibly happen to me.

Could I find myself in some kind of active shooter/bomber/hostage situation?  Sure, why not?  Bad guys exist and somebody has to be their victim.  I lived in New York on September 11, 2001, and in Boston on April 15, 2013, so I’m not entirely naïve about the horrors that Islamic (and non-Islamic) extremists can unleash upon unwitting bystanders.

All the same, there is something to which I am equally attuned:  statistics.

You’ve read the actuarial tables.  All things equal, each of us is roughly 35,000 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack.  Heck, we are 350 times likelier to die from gravity (read:  falling off a roof) and four times likelier to be struck by lightning.  According to at least one study, the average American’s lifetime odds of being killed as the result of terrorism are approximately 1 in 20 million.

On one level, these numbers serve as amusing, if abstract, pieces of trivia.  On a deeper level, they reflect what a colossal waste of time it is to actively fear being caught up in an act of mass violence.  The probability of such a thing are so remote, you might as well get worked up over being eaten by Bigfoot.

And yet, from a new poll, a record-high number of Americans claim to be more fearful of terrorism now than at any time since September 11, 2001.  Thanks to the atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino—and the increasing reach of ISIS in general—the super-low risk of being the victim of a similar attack now strikes many of us as entirely feasible, if not outright imminent.

It’s not, and it never will be.  Get it together, people.  Don’t be such drama queens.  Keep calm and…well, you know.

Look:  I watch Woody Allen movies.  I understand that if someone is determined to freak out about an imaginary bogeyman, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.  Then there’s the fact that this particular bogeyman is not completely a figment of our collective imagination.  In Syria and Iraq, it’s a lot worse than that.

But realize that, here in America, by being afraid of a hypothetical attack by a gang of faceless, radical Muslims, you are—by definition—letting the terrorists win.

Not to get too cute or cliché, but the object of terrorism is to generate terror.  For the jihadist, committing random mass murder is the means, not the ends.  Whenever a follower of ISIS or al Qaeda opens fire in a crowded marketplace or plants a bomb on a city bus, the point isn’t merely to kill a bunch of people; rather, it’s to make everyone else nervous about entering a marketplace or boarding a bus, because, hey, they might be next.

George W. Bush was absolutely right to say that the best way to fight back is to continue going about our lives as if nothing has changed.  In the most fundamental sense, nothing has:  America remains an exceptionally open society in which all citizens can come and go as they please.  Our economy and armed forces continue to be the envy of the world.  The First Amendment is in such strong shape that a private business denying service to gay people is now considered a form of free expression.  And—sorry to be so repetitive—the likelihood of being personally affected by terrorism is all but microscopic.

To be sure, the government does not have the same luxury as individuals to adopt such a blasé attitude toward the global struggle against violent extremism (or whatever you want to call it).  Having the means to actually disrupt organized crime originating in the Middle East, our military and intelligence agencies are obligated to take the ISIS threat seriously, thereby giving us private citizens the freedom to leave our houses every morning with the confidence that we will return in one piece.

But here’s the main point:  There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t adopt this optimistic attitude anyway.  There is much our government can do to keep us safe, but there is just as much that it can’t.  Islamic terrorism—like Christian terrorism—cannot be eliminated completely.  More perpetrators will fall through the cracks and more innocent people will be killed.

But so what?  There’s very little we civilians can contribute to this struggle—other than the whole “see something, say something” initiative, which has produced mixed results—so where’s the stock in being terrified?  Death itself is unavoidable, and death by terrorism is on roughly the same plane of probability as death by asteroid—and nearly as futile to prevent in advance.

What we should do, then, is take a cue from Franklin Roosevelt, who in January 1941 outlined the “four freedoms” to which all inhabitants of the Earth should be entitled.  While he merely plagiarized from the First Amendment for two of them—“freedom of speech” and “freedom of worship”—and paraphrased the Constitution’s preamble for the third—“freedom from want”—the fourth was an invention all his own:  “freedom from fear.”

Whatever such a concept meant at the outset of World War II—a reduction in global arms, mostly—today we can accept it as a right we grant to ourselves:  The freedom to go about our lives as if they were actually controlled by us.

Solving Islam

More than 14 years after the September 11 attacks, why are Americans still arguing about whether Muslims are people?

In 2001, the country suffered an act of terrorism carried out by 19 men, all of whom were Muslim and claimed to be acting on divine orders.  Even then, however, cooler heads occasionally prevailed when it came to assigning blame.

Consider the following statement from September 17 of that year:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  […]  When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.  […]  America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country.  Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.  And they need to be treated with respect.  In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

That was George W. Bush.  In a special address to Congress three days later, he added, “[T]hose who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.  The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

In other words, even President Bush in 2001 understood that a war against Islamic extremists was not the same as a war against Islam.  It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, so why are we having so much trouble with it now?  Why can so many Americans still not distinguish a gang of murderers from the billion-plus peaceful folks whose religion they happen to share?  Why are we scapegoating all members of a particular faith for a problem caused by some of them?

The explanation for this can roughly be traced to three separate but occasionally interconnected sources:  Ignorance, bigotry and a few unfortunate facts.

The first two require little explanation.  Regrettably, a sizable minority of American citizens are just plain dumb when it comes to understanding people who are different from them.  Either because they don’t bother to educate themselves or because they reject the information that is staring them directly in the face, these people are impervious to reason, sensitivity and intellectual growth.

In the present context, this would include those who look at someone wearing a hijab and immediately think, “Terrorist!”  Or, more explicitly, those who see Muslims committing atrocities overseas and bellow, “Let’s not allow any Muslims to enter the United States!”

Not even Mark Rothko painted with a brush that broad, yet that is precisely the mainstream view among nearly all Republican presidential candidates and their supporters.  Donald Trump surprised no one this week by suggesting all American Muslims should be “registered.”  (Whatever that means.)  Ben Carson has said an observant Muslim should not be elected president.  Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz gave the game away by advocating preferential treatment to Christian refugees over those who, shall we say, pray to a slightly different god.

Against all of this xenophobic nonsense—betrayals of such foundational American values as multiculturalism and religious freedom—there remains a profoundly uncomfortable question:  Why , at this moment, are ISIS and its ideas so goddamned popular among certain members of the Islamic faith?

In 2013, Pew released results of a survey of Muslims around the world.  Among other things, the survey found that 72 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Suicide bombing in defense of Islam is never justified.”  That seems reassuring—until you realize that it means 28 percent of respondents didn’t agree with the same statement.

In fact, 11 percent of the world’s Muslims explicitly endorsed the view that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is either “often justified” or “sometimes justified.”  That leaves 17 percent who either refused to answer or didn’t have an opinion on the merits of murdering large amounts of civilians.

I don’t know about you, but I find these numbers slightly alarming.

If one out of every nine Christians were in favor of blowing themselves up in a crowded marketplace because someone said something disparaging about Jesus, would we not be correct in saying that Christianity had a problem?

We can bang on and on about how Islam is a religion of peace and that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence in all its forms—the latter being an incontrovertibly true statement, particularly in the United States—but we are entitled to look at that minority and conclude that Islam itself might have something to do with it.

There’s a popular refrain that says the problem isn’t religion; it’s people.  That is, there’s nothing in religion to turn good people evil; rather, it’s that certain people are already evil and will cling to any philosophy to justify their actions.

It sounds convincing and is largely true—in the end, each individual is responsible for his own behavior—but it does not resolve the question of why a disproportionate number of these murderous psychopaths belong to one faith is particular.  If suicide bombing doesn’t have to do with religion, why do virtually all suicide bombers belong to the same religion?  If Islamic texts don’t instruct adherents to resort to violence in response to blasphemy, why is one in nine Muslims so convinced that they do?

These are the sorts of questions we ignore at our peril.  However, they are ultimately mere window dressing for the only question that matters:  What do we do with this information?

As we have found, there are two general approaches to addressing this issue.  One, we could decide that because 11 percent of Muslims are sympathetic to Islamic terrorism, we are therefore entitled to stigmatize and openly discriminate against the other 89 percent.  Or two, we could stop acting like children and recognize that two separate and seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time.  Namely, that Islamic holy books provide justification for holy violence and also that most Muslims have the decency and common sense to ignore what those books say.

We can all recite verses from the Christian and Jewish bibles that condemn certain people to death for all sorts of offenses, and we can equally recite the names of people—in America and elsewhere—who take those verses to heart.  Why, it was just a few weeks ago that several GOP presidential candidates spoke at an event hosted by a Colorado pastor who openly advocates the murder of all gay people on Earth—as explicitly recommended in Leviticus 20:13.  In many countries in Africa and the Middle East, of course, this commandment is actually carried out.

Yet somehow, the balance of the world’s Jews and Christians manage to overlook these prehistoric injunctions, living, instead, according to the laws of man and the good old Golden Rule.  If we Judeo-Christians can pat ourselves on the back for pulling this off, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to others who have done the same?

As ever, the tonic to religious fanaticism includes such concepts as secularism, pluralism, rule of law and—when all else fails—treating one’s fellow human beings with dignity and respect.  This necessitates seeing people as individuals rather than members of a group—even when they identify as both—since applying labels to each other tends to produce hatred and discord at the precise moment when common ground and reconciliation are in order.

We might agree that love, respect and empathy will not solve a problem like ISIS all by themselves.  On the other hand, there is no instance I know about in which they have ever made matters worse.