by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government, American University’s School of Public Affairs. He is author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). His second book, Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security will be published in spring 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The terrorist attacks in Paris leave us all horrified – as do the attacks in Lebanon last week that have received less public attention worldwide. Terrorism is meant to make people afraid, and it does its job. Part of what we must do in responding to these attacks is to manage our fear and prevent it from ruling us or pushing us (or our elected officials) to make bad decisions.
No one (except the terrorists themselves) wants to see another attack against civilians. Some elected officials and candidates for office, however, have made counterproductive statements following the Paris attacks. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declares the U.S. should only accept Syrian refugees who are Christian, arguing that “[t]here is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Jeb Bush similarly suggested that the U.S. should focus “on the Christians who have no place in Syria any more.” Bush also described the Paris attacks as “an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) similarly described what is happening as “a clash of civilizations.” Republican presidential candidates criticized Hillary Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates for declining to use the words “radical Islam” when discussing the fight against ISIS. Donald Trump suggested (not for the first time) that it may be necessary to consider closing some mosques in the United States (though he said he is not personally considering this – yet).
These candidates surely want to find a way to take meaningful action to keep Americans and others safe from ISIS. (Though Sen. Cruz leveled the very troubling and baseless charge that President Obama “does not wish to defend this country.”) But many are making a serious mistake by speaking about ISIS and terrorism in ways that draw religious lines between Christians and Muslims. This is not a matter of “political correctness,” it is a matter of logic, fact and reason. Of course ISIS is Islamic. But ISIS practices a form of Islam that the vast majority of Muslims reject. In fact, ISIS has terrorized and killed many Muslims it sees as apostates. It may well serve ISIS’s purposes to describe its terrorist acts as part of a religious war: After the Paris attacks, ISIS referred to France as “the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe” and a leader of “the convoy of the Crusader campaign [i.e. the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria].”