Shots were fired at a mosque in Quebec. That was all America knew Monday morning: an act of violence with Muslim victims. The shooter’s identity was anybody’s guess.
So, the guessing began. Right-wing tabloids in Britain saw a Muslim killer, his mind warped by ancient sectarian hatreds. Fox News added details to this portrait, painting him a Moroccan immigrant who shouted “Allahu akbar” as he fired. Radio host John Cardillo predicted that these revelations would vindicate President Trump — and the refugee ban that the liberal media had spent all weekend decrying.
Donald Trump Jr. appreciated that sentiment.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the attack “a terrible reminder” of why the president’s immigration restrictions were so important.
And then Canadian police named a white French-Canadian — whose Facebook “likes” included Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump — as their sole suspect. And the murders ceased to be a matter of political concern.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau condemned the shooting as “a terrorist attack.” The American president did no such thing. In fact, Trump released no formal statement on the subject — despite the fact that he had rarely missed an opportunity to comment on smaller-scale acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims in more distant lands.
Trump once savaged Barack Obama for refusing to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He, and his GOP allies, accused the former president of putting “political correctness” above national security: Obama was too worried about offending his oversensitive constituents to confront the threat to our homeland.
This critique was either cynical or mindless. The president explained, repeatedly, that his aversion to the phrase was not driven by the complaints of campus liberals, but by the advice of counterterrorism experts: Emphasizing the “Islamic” nature of the threat would alienate Muslim allies whose cooperation enhances our security.
Against this cost, Republicans have never been able to name a concrete benefit of deploying their favorite phrase. Rather, they have insinuated that Obama’s reluctance to confront Islamic extremism rhetorically betrayed his indifference to doing so militarily.
This is a bizarre charge to level at a president who ordered ten times more aerial strikes against terror suspects in the Muslim world than did George W. Bush.
But in the case of Donald Trump and white supremacist violence, the president’s reluctance to name the threat really does reflect a disinterest in combatting it.
According to Reuters, the Trump administration wants the government’s “Countering Violent Extremism” program to stop targeting neo-Nazis and focus exclusively on violent Islamists. The CVE program aims to deter lone-wolf terrorists by sponsoring community groups and educational programs that counter-message violent ideologies. Among the organizations currently receiving federal funds is “Life After Hate,” which works to rehabilitate white supremacists and other right-wing extremists.
Trump wants the government to sever ties with such groups, and rename the program “Countering Islamic Extremism,” according to sources who spoke with the news wire. Even if one stipulates that federal resources should be devoted exclusively to countering “radical Islam,” this rebrand is foolish: The ostensible point of the program is to attract the cooperation of mainstream Muslim groups in deterring extremism within their communities. It is highly unlikely that such organizations would be more willing to work with the program if its name stigmatized their religion. And, in fact, the Trump administration’s overt hostility to Islam has already cost it such cooperation. Per Reuters:
One grant recipient, Leaders Advancing & Helping Communities, a Michigan-based group led by Lebanese-Americans, has declined a $500,000 DHS grant it had sought…A representative for the group confirmed the grant had been rejected but declined further comment. “Given the current political climate and cause for concern, LAHC has chosen to decline the award,” said the email.
Beyond its self-defeating aspects, Trump’s exclusive focus on Islamic extremism is not consistent with a cold-eyed appraisal of the threats America faces. Since 9/11, right-wing extremists have murdered 50 Americans on U.S. soil. Before Omar Mateen’s mass murder in Orlando, that figure exceeded the post-9/11 domestic death toll from Islamic extremists.
Of those killed by white reactionaries, 47 died after Barack Obama’s election — an uptick anticipated by a 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security.
The DHS analysis warned that the combination of a weak economy and an African-American president was spurring a wave of white supremacist radicalization, which had made “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology” into “the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
But this idea offended the sensibilities of conservative media and elected officials. So the report was withdrawn. Two years later, the Washington Post reported that the analytical team behind the report had been “effectively eviscerated.”
The most paranoid denizens of the far-right fever swamp claim that jihadists have infiltrated the American government — and that this was the true reason why Obama never condemned “radical Islamic terrorism.” There is no evidence for this charge — but there is considerable evidence that white supremacists have infiltrated American law enforcement. Or so says the FBI.
Perhaps the strongest argument for focusing counterterrorism resources entirely on violent Islamists is that American white supremacists have never executed an attack on the scale of 9/11. But that isn’t for lack of trying. In 1997, three Ku Klux Klan members plotted the bombing of a natural-gas plant outside Fort Worth, Texas. Had the local Klan leader not gotten cold feet — and reported the plan to the FBI — authorities believe as many as 30,000 could have been killed.
In truth, President Trump’s exclusive focus on Islamic terrorism is not about protecting national security, but about protecting white conservatives’ emotional security. It is about protecting the comfort one can find in imagining that evil is a quality exclusive to an alien other — and in dividing the world between the righteous, who look like us, and the wicked, who look like them; between God’s people and the barbarians; Judeo-Christian civilization and the Muslim hordes.
But we can’t allow conservatives to make the Pentagon their safe space. We cannot ignore the reality of evil to protect their tender illusions. We must say the words “radical racist terrorism.” We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.