Maybe I’m the chupacabra?
Beyond the fact that Donald Trump’s Muslim ban perpetuates the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists, it damages America’s already tenuous intelligence-sharing relationship with the six countries he lists. As this ban winds its way through the appeals courts, whether is it enacted or not, the damage has been done. The President of the United States has labeled Muslims as a group that needs banning or careful vetting, thus marginalizing an entire population. How do we recover from that?
During my tenure in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, particularly during and following September 11th 2001, I had unique insight into terrorists. I am a practicing reform Jew and at the time who, at the time of my appointment to an elite counterterrorism group, did not know a great deal about Islam. However, something the CIA did and does extraordinarily well, was educating their agents. Within a very short time, everyone on that team—and in the agency in general― was well-versed on the customs, cultural mores, and religious practices of Muslims. Soon, I knew as much about Islam as most of those who practice.
On my trips overseas, my interest and curiosity grew into a love for the culture, people, and religion of the Middle East. I loved the beautiful sounds of call to prayer each morning, and throughout the day. I loved visiting the intricate, elaborate mosques in the Middle East.
One of the most profound moments in my life occurred when I was speaking with a failed suicide bomber. I had interrogated him many times, and was trying to reach into his history, his past, his life to find the basis of his action. I asked a simple question: Why do you hate America so much. He replied, “I don’t hate America. I hate American Jews.” My visceral reaction was to hate him. But instead of responding to that hate, I sat with his words for a moment and collected my thoughts. A Robert Frost quote ran through my head, Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. I had no sympathy for the situation this terrorist was in at the time but as we discussed his hatred for Jews further, I eventually discovered that he didn’t hate me categorically because he’s a Muslim. He hated me because after a poverty-stricken, homeless childhood, he was pulled off the street to be nurtured and raised by terrorists like Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As they gave him every necessary comfort: medicine, food, housing, they also provided him with an “education” that he didn’t have the intellectual resources to question or doubt. In his vulnerable, needy state, he was easily indoctrinated into the terrorist ideology.
This man, I reminded myself, was not the spokesperson for all Muslims. And his hatred of an entire group, Jews, didn’t turn me into a person who despised an entire group, Muslims. I saw this person for who he truly was: a simple-minded terrorist who didn’t have the faculties to see out of what he’d been taught.
While there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, the FBI defines it as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” This is a rather broad definition, and it should be. Nowhere in this definition are the words Islam or Muslim. Acts of terrorism are never committed simply because someone is a Muslim, there is always an individual story behind the religious identity. Many, including our president, seem to have forgotten the early 1990s which brought the Oklahoma City bombing, a terrorist act committed by a Christian man. Terrorists come in all religions, nationalities, colors, and genders.
Marginalizing a group of people the way our president has, feeds animosity, fear, and anger. From a national security perspective, it makes the six countries who are on Trump’s list, less willing to cooperate with us. This alone, puts us in great danger, as our security relies on maintaining relationships with these countries. If the countries on Trumps list stop sharing information, there will be many instances when the intelligence community is flying blind. The Chinese general, Sun Tzu stated that you must “know your enemy and know yourself and you will always be victorious.” One of President Trump’s most pressing problem is that he does not have an understanding of who our true enemies are. Terrorists are our enemies. Muslims are not. Banning Muslims, as President Trump dangerously wishes to do, will no more stop terrorism than banning umbrellas will stop the rain. He’s looking in the wrong direction.
I’d like to say that I am without judgement, but that would be a lie. Recently, a tweet from a Muslim woman in city near where I live went viral. In the tweet, she told her friend who was traveling to Palestine to, “Go kill some Jews.” I admittedly felt the same sense of hatred bubble up as I did years earlier when talking with the failed suicide bomber. But then I thought of my Muslim friends, students, and colleagues; people who in no way support this woman and her anti-Semitism. She certainly wasn’t speaking on behalf of all Muslims. We must all remind ourselves, over and over again, that we cannot judge an entire group of people on the transgressions of a single individual within that group.