This is a delicate, unlovely point. But I believe it is an important one to make sense of the present moment. People do ugly things when they are scared – both individuals and great masses of people. After 9/11, the US dramatically clamped down on immigration – in some ways that were sensible, in other ways that were simply wrong. But the country had just seen thousands of its citizens slaughtered in a daring and catastrophic terrorist attack in the heart of one of its greatest cities. So much ugly and self-destructive grew out of that moment, much of which still provides the context of the world we live in and struggle with today. But for those of us who were well into adulthood at the time, the sense of threat and danger in late September 2001 were palpable. People were scared and they were angry.
I have always thought something similar about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This is one of the greatest stains on our nation’s history. What is not always easy to remember though is that after Japan attacked the US in Hawaii, there was no reason to think there might not be a Japanese invasion of the western United States. We know in retrospect that the Japanese army and navy never got remotely close to the continental United States in force. That would have been fairly clear to someone with knowledge of the full military situation. But think how freaked out people get when a few crazies blow up pressure cookers. This was the prospect of an invasion and occupation by a hostile foreign power. That’s frightening.
Here is where I want to be clear. This does not remotely justify what happened. There was no comparable internment of German- or Italian-Americans on the east coast, even though the German navy was much more active across the breadth of the Atlantic than the Japanese were in the Pacific. Japanese-Americans were interned because they were not accepted as fully American by their fellow countrymen despite their citizenship and in many cases longterm roots in the US. The difference was racism. That was the necessary precondition of internment.
My point is that the evil people do can only be understood in the context of the threat they face and the fear they experience. It’s not exculpation but context. Had we been living in the western United States in 1942 can we be sure our fear and anger wouldn’t have led us to justify the unjustifiable? This isn’t relativism or justification. It’s humility.
Which brings us to today.
Americans were willing to tolerate a lot of ugliness in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. What exactly justifies this now? Yes, we’ve had a handful of frightening lone wolf terror attacks that have taken a number of lives. (For anyone thinking this is a mere abstraction to me, one of these attacks took place literally across the street from my apartment.) By far the largest loss of life was in the Orlando night club shooting in 2016 – a horrible, horrible tragedy. But in each of these cases the offenders were either born in the United States or arrived as children. The simple fact is that there is no precipitating event which provides an explanation for this crackdown even if it wouldn’t justify it. And we’re taking more extreme measures now than we did then. In fact, if you talk to counter-terrorism experts, the US immigration system is very tight, dramatically different from what was in place in 2001. If you look at public opinion data, Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ was never popular with the American people. People voted for him in spite of it, not because of it.
It all comes down to a simple point. People do awful things out of fear and hate. The two frequently meld into each other in ways that make them hard to distinguish. But this move is driven by hate. It’s driven by feelings of aggression. It is not even engineered in a way that would be effective to address its stated purpose. If you are for draconian actions toward immigrants from a region in the grips of extremism and war, but also happen to be ferociously against immigrants from Latin America where little if any of these apply, maybe you’re just a malevolent person rather than security conscious. To be a true marquee war criminal takes more than just motivation. You need to be in the right place at the right time. A lot of the guys around Trump are the types who are just waiting for their moment.
For all the talk about ‘populism’, what really imbues this White House is nationalism. But not just nationalism in a general sense which can have positive, communitarian aspects. It is a hateful and aggressive nationalism based on zero-sum relationships and a thirst for domination and violence. These are dangerous people.