It's Still A Travel Ban, And It Still Targets Muslims

Legal or not, it is terrible policy. It makes us less safe.
03/06/2017 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2017
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

With the rollout of Trump’s revised travel ban, we need to be careful not to let keeping score of the lawsuit distract us from the core underlying problem with the ban.  Legal or not, it is terrible policy.  It makes us less safe.

Trump’s newly minted revision arguably defangs some of the legal objections to the original version. But it’s still a travel ban, and it still targets Muslims.  It is driven by the same rationale that drove the original ban, that keeping people from Muslim countries out of the United States will make us safer.  It just bans fewer people.  

The revision of the ban appears to have been motivated by the pragmatic goal of ending, or at least crippling, the State of Washington’s legal challenge, not by a desire to change policy.  Trump has said so.  He said at a recent news conference that the ban would be crafted to respond to court rulings in the case brought by the State of Washington.

That legal challenge, if left to run its course, had the potential to lead to a constitutional crisis that could threaten Trump’s presidency.  So it isn’t surprising that Trump took this way out.

If we want to score the lawsuit like a sporting event, put a point on the board for Trump.  By issuing a somewhat narrower ban, Trump forces the State of Washington’s legal team back to square one.  They still may be able to mount a credible attack on the revised ban, but they will be aiming at a smaller, less vulnerable target.

While the shape of the ban has changed, however, the core policy question it poses has not:  In whatever form, does Trump’s travel ban make us safer, or less safe?

The balance falls decisively on the side of less safe.

Perhaps the cruelest, most ironic consequence of the ban could be to put the lives of American soldiers at risk.

On the “safer” side of the ledger is the theoretical possibility that banning people from several Muslim countries could possibly keep out somebody who means to do us harm, and has the capacity to do so.  

But hordes of people from those countries were not about to enter the U.S. anyway.  And those who want to come here cannot do so with impunity.  They would be filtered by vetting, visas, no-fly lists, customs agents and other built-in restrictions that would restrict entry.  

So the real question is whether the incremental protection from banning them entirely, as opposed to employing existing or improved safeguards to screen their entry, really makes us safer.

Let’s say that it does, at least theoretically. Let’s concede for the sake of argument that, despite scant history of terrorist acts committed by people from those countries, it’s not impossible that someone bent on doing us harm might thwart existing and improved screening in the absence of an absolute ban. After all, it is impossible to prove a negative.

And let’s also concede that although the ban doesn’t extend to the countries that have been most responsible for past acts of terror in our country, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, it still carries at least some theoretical possibility of keeping a bad guy out.   

That’s pretty much the whole argument in favor of the ban.  It’s chicken soup. Who knows if it’s really good for us? It couldn’t hurt.

Yes, it could. The Trump administration’s argument that the travel ban would be justified if it saved only a single American life sounds good, but it is egregiously simplistic. It misses the larger point that the ban makes us less safe in ways that are much less hypothetical. Let’s look at the other side of the ledger.

The overwhelming majority of counterterrorism experts believe that the Muslim ban is a prime recruiting tool for ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups because it tends to confirm their narrative that the West, and particularly the United States, is fighting a holy war against Islam.

A few commentators take issue with this. They argue, in the main, that it is insulting to Muslims to brand them as susceptible to recruiting propaganda because Muslims, like the rest of us, are rational, thinking human beings who make rational decisions. They also argue that there is little if any evidence that ISIS itself has used the ban in any of its formal recruiting efforts.

These arguments are unconvincing, to say the least. They sound like they have been developed by reasoning backwards from a preconceived opinion in search of a rationale.

It goes without saying that Muslims, like the rest of us, are indeed rational, thinking people. But that doesn’t make it an insult to say that Muslims, like everybody else, can be reached and motivated through social media.  The argument that Muslims are immune from the same influences as everybody else defies common sense and is contrary to everything we know about the power of social media to drive thoughts and actions. Of people from every country and of every race and religion.

And simply because ISIS hasn’t posted a formal “WE’RE ISIS AND WE APPROVE THIS AD” doesn’t change the fact its supporters are having a field day with the ban on social media all around the world.

The ban also fuels the recruitment of home-grown American terrorists.  Peter Bergen’s most recent book, United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists, and How Do We Stop Them?, traces the history of how the internet and social media have been used to recruit lone wolves in the United States.  Every fatal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, Bergen points out, has been perpetrated by American citizens or legal permanent residents.

Nor is the negative impact of the ban restricted to individuals. It is also harming our standing with and ability to influence governments, especially in the Muslim world. Iraq is a prime example.  

The initial travel ban has already created a wedge between the United States and other countries we will need to fight the war against ISIS. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry expressed “regret and astonishment” over the ban, stating that it is “necessary that the new American administration reconsider this wrong decision, and we affirm Iraq’s real desire to strengthen and develop the strategic partnership between the two countries and increase the prospects of cooperation in the counter-terrorism field and economic sphere and all (that) serves both countries’ interests.”

The ban is also harming our standing with allies in Europe. Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, described the ban as “divisive and wrong,” and renounced his dual American citizenship, although we can’t be sure that the ban was the precise triggering event. The Mayor of London called the ban “shameful and cruel.”  The French Foreign Minister pointedly noted that terrorism “doesn’t have a nationality; discrimination is not an answer.”  France, like our neighbor Canada, distanced itself from Trump’s ban by inviting refugees to come to their country.

Perhaps the cruelest, most ironic consequence of the ban could be to put the lives of American soldiers at risk. If you were an American soldier fighting along with other countries in the region on the front lines against ISIS, would you rest easy if you knew that the President of the United States had just told the soldier fighting alongside you that you were there to steal his country’s oil, and that he was banned from entering the United States because of his nationality?

The price of hopefully, possibly, maybe keeping out one bad actor is far too high.  The travel ban is in some ways reminiscent of the Republicans’ campaign to restrict voting through legislation supposedly aimed at voter fraud.  Both roll out nuclear weapons to kill a phantom mosquito, collateral damage be damned.

There is, however, a major difference.  The collateral damage of disenfranchising large groups of eligible voters is not really “collateral” at all.  It is the very purpose of the Republican voting laws.  But that’s another story.  

Trump, by contrast, shouldn’t be accused of lying when he expresses the belief that his travel ban on Muslim countries will make us safer.  No doubt he believes that.

This time he’s not lying, he’s just clueless.

Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law.  His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.  Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.

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