What the hell is going on?
That’s what Donald Trump wants to know, or at least what he wants the US government to know before any more Muslims are allowed into the country.
What precisely is there to know, and what can be done with that knowledge are, of course, the questions of the hour.
Everyone would like to know why some Muslims become so “radicalised” that they are willing to die in order to kill as many civilians as possible – Muslims as well as non-Muslims, Sunni as well as Shia, the poor and working class even more than the wealthy.
Building a state or bringing the Apocalypse; avenging Palestine or protecting the faith; enraged by neo-imperialism abroad or prejudice at home; citizens or recent and even illegal migrants. There are as many variables and explanations as there are terrorist specialists willing to proffer them.
More important, we’d like to know which Muslims are the most likely to engage in such behaviour.
No reliable profile or predictor
The Paris attackers were almost all Europeans, with perhaps a couple of recent arrivals from the Middle East. The husband and wife team behind the San Bernardino, California, massacre were an American-born Muslim and his Pakistan-born, Saudi-raised wife.
Let’s set aside for the moment that the number of Americans killed in terror attacks is minuscule compared with non-terrorist gun violence – well over 400,000 gun deaths versus about 400 terrorist deaths – or that Muslims do not carry out the majority of terrorist attacks in the United States.
A perusal of the backgrounds of hundreds of Muslim terrorists involved in attacks in the West and in the Arab/Muslim world show convincingly that there is no reliable profile or predictor of who will become a killer. The backgrounds and motivations are so complex precisely because the conflicts underlying the current wave of terrorism globally are so complex and multifaceted, and because there are so many countries involved in the violence on one side or another.
A perusal of the backgrounds of hundreds of Muslim terrorists involved in attacks … show convincingly that there is no reliable profile or predictor of who will become a killer.
No wonder Donald Trump is so confused. And politicians can’t afford to look confused. But while he can afford to suggest outrageous solutions such as banning all Muslims (later modified to merely non-American Muslims) from entering the country “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”, members of Congress have to actually formulate legislation that can, however problematically, be enacted.
The latest attempt at relevance and toughness against the terror threat is a bill, HR 158, that would restrict the “visa-waiver programme” that allows citizens of 38 countries, mostly European, to enter the US without a visa. It passed a House vote by the veto proof margin of 407 to 38, with most Democrats as well as Republicans supporting it. The White House supports most of its provisions as well.
The proposed law would deny visa-free entry to citizens from the waiver countries who have visited Iraq, Syria, Sudan, or Iran during the last five years, requiring them instead to go through a more stringent security process to get into the country.
Some argue that the bill would, or even should, prohibit people who have citizenship in one of these countries by virtue of their parents or being born there, however early they left, from entering the US without special screening (against Trump’s wishes, this provision would affect Jewish and Christian citizens from Iran as well as Muslims).
It also would subject humanitarian workers, journalist and academics who’ve travelled to these countries to the visa programme, which has brought significant criticism from groups like the ACLU, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) on these grounds.
No one can begrudge any country taking whatever measures it deems necessary to protect its citizens and territory from terrorist attack. But with upwards of 20 million visitors per year from visa waiver countries, and discernibly no terrorists including the 9/11 hijackers actually having come in on a visa-free tourism entrance, it’s hard to understand how this actually protects anyone.
Indeed, the threat of Iranian “terrorists” entering the US through this programme in order to commit terrorism is ludicrous, while Sudanese are responsible for as few attacks as Iranians against Americans, never mind on US soil.
At the same time, any would-be terrorist who had travelled to Syria or Iraq likely did not enter these countries officially at a border where the passport would be stamped, and if they did, they would most likely obtain a new, clean passport before coming to the US. For its part, Turkey would have to be added to the list of countries visited, given its role as a conduit for fighters to Iraq and Syria.
On the other hand, few if any of the Paris and neither of the San Bernardino attackers would have had their travel restricted by the visa waiver programme. Indeed, it now seems that Tashfeen Malik might well have lied to get a special “K-1” fiance visa, as she and Syed Farook were allegedly in fact already married before entering the country. But no one wants to make marriage harder on potential constituents, so that provision is likely to stay.
One could suspect that another part of the bill, requiring countries to “share counterintelligence” information with the US or risk removal from the waiver programme, is in fact a more important component of the bill, which is not being sold to frightened Americans in this manner.
Given all the spying and surveillance scandals involving US intelligence agencies in recent years, it’s not surprising that many countries not at the core of the US surveillance system (the so-called “five eyes” of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) would be reluctant to share intelligence on their nationals with US intelligence agencies.
Most important, the new legislation does not address any of the core US policies that have contributed so much to the current conflict – support for dictatorial and authoritarian regimes across the region; the Israeli occupation; massive arms sales; the use of drone strikes; the broad number of countries currently bombing Syria; that have not only exacerbated terrorism in the name of Islam, but made it impossible to deal with the root causes that ensure a steady supply of jihadists of all kinds to the web zines, and in some cases straining the camps of the major world terrorist groups.
And so Americans are in quite a quandary. Something has to be done to figure out “what the hell” is going on; but they can’t actually be told the truth, because the truth implicates them in the dynamics that have created the war on terror.
And no one wants to be told that somehow they share responsibility for all the violence around them, however illegitimate the violence is on its own terms. Yet gestures such as restricting the Visa-Waiver Programme, curtailing refugee and asylum claims, or even blocking entry by Muslim entirely, will only hamper legitimate travel while doing little or nothing to prevent terrorists in or outside the US from planning and executing attacks.
Whether anyone will pay a political price for all this theatre, and who ultimately gains the largest audience remains to be seen.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.