9/22/16

Earlier this week, terrorists with alleged ties to ISIS carried out attacks in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota. Before the dust had settled, both presidential candidates were already clamoring to shape the post-attack narrative with starkly different ideas of who is responsible for the attacks.

Republican nominee Donald Trump blames America’s immigration system. At a campaign rally in Florida, he argued: “These attacks and many others were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system.” During a telephone interview with Fox News he predicted terrorist attacks would continue because “we’ve been weak…we’re letting people in by the thousands.” Trump’s past comments about Muslim immigrants and refugees provide further fodder for his argument that Muslim foreigners coming into the U.S. are the real problem, and terrorism is its symptom.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, made a marked effort in her response to the terrorist attacks to separate Muslims from the terrorists. She made it clear she believes responsibility rests solely with those who perpetuate extremist ideologies. Speaking at a news conference following the attacks she said: “We’re going against the bad guys, and we’re going to get them, but we’re not going after an entire religion.” She argued that it is ISIS — and Trump — who are hoping to “make this into a war against Islam.”

Clinton paints “jihadists, [and] violent terrorists” as the enemy, distinguishing them from Muslims as a whole while Trump depicts all of those who have or will immigrate to the U.S. as potential enemies. In this way, Trump creates an in-group, native-born American citizens, and an out-group, immigrants. Clinton does her best to avoid creating in-group, out-group dichotomies.

While the two attacks are not equivalent in scale, there are remarkable similarities in the way politicians responded to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Donald Trump’s reaction to the recent New York, New Jersey and Minnesota attacks. Namely, much like Trump’s immediate demonization of Muslim-Americans, within hours after the Pearl Harbor attack all Japanese-Americans were being blamed. For example, General John DeWitt told Congress: “I don’t want any of them here.”[1] 
A collective “them,” is also present in Trump’s rhetoric. Trump attributes fault to “people” coming into the U.S., rather than individual terrorists. In post-Pearl Harbor America, all Japanese-Americans were suspects. In a Trump America the same may be true for Muslim-Americans and immigrants.

I believe the New York, New Jersey and Minnesota attacks were no more the fault of all American Muslims than the Pearl Harbor attack was the fault of all Japanese Americans. We are all aware of how anti-Japanese sentiment manifested: the internment of 120,000 Americans for half a decade.

Americans must be cognizant of avoiding a similar outcome this time around.

[1] Brett Parker, “Nativism and the Politics of Immigration,” Stanford Political Journal, December 5, 2014, https://stanfordpolitics.com/nativism-and-the-politics-of-immigration-ea6d7c1e0008#.atgtsbj67.

Lily Nellans