Following last week’s terrorist attack in Brussels, Hillary Clinton tweeted sentiments of solidarity, resolve, and anti-Islamophobia, as well as an info-graphic displaying her three-point “plan to defeat ISIS” in Syria and Iraq.
Bernie Sanders expressed his condolences to the people of Brussels, stating that this “attack is a brutal reminder that the international community must come together to destroy ISIS. This type of barbarism cannot be allowed to continue.”
The bombings thrust Ted Cruz into an even more urgent state of (imaginary) action: “We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized. We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration. And we need to execute a coherent campaign to utterly destroy ISIS.” He additionally warned that “Radical Islam is at war with us.”
According to Donald Trump, “Brussels was a beautiful city, a beautiful place with zero crime. And now it’s a disaster city. It’s a total disaster, and we have to be very careful in the United States, we have to be very careful as to who we allow in this country.” He reiterated that, after two decades of heavy Muslim immigration, Brussels has become “an armed camp. And there is a certain group of people that is making living a normal life impossible. In my opinion, this is just the beginning. It will get worse and worse because we are lax and we are foolish—at this point we cannot allow these people to come into our country.” He went on to say that Western governments should be less squeamish about torturing terrorist suspects in order to gain information that might prevent similar attacks.
Which candidate is on the right track here? Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders embrace the same idea: that of an “international community” coming together to defeat a terrorist organization that threatens our civilized way of life—without, however, succumbing to an identical incivility in order to get the job done.
On the other hand, Ted Cruz suggests that we begin treating Muslims (in general) like criminals even before they’ve committed any crimes and that we turn their neighborhoods into “secure” prison-like environments through constant, invasive policing. Like Donald Trump, he believes we must close our borders to a certain kind of people—for Cruz, this seems to mean Syrian refugees and other “potential terrorists,” while for Trump, it means all Muslims.
What all four of these candidates agree on is that the United States must destroy ISIS. ISIS is indeed a very, very bad thing. The jihadist group has taken credit for the attacks upon Brussels and Paris, and horrifying as these incidents may be, they still can’t be compared to the havoc that ISIS has wreaked in the Middle East.
However, the conception of ISIS put forth by our presidential candidates and by the Republicans in particular is somewhat misleading: the implication of Trump and Cruz’s rhetoric is that ISIS is a centralized militant group that accomplishes terrorist attacks in Europe by sneaking its Iraqi and Syrian operatives (who may pose as refugees or hop unnoticed over unpatrolled borders) into France, Belgium, and the United States. Therefore, the logical course of action for Western nations is to cease accepting Syrian refugees and Muslim immigrants; then, once we’ve safely sealed ourselves off from the threat of Radical Islam, we can use military force to obliterate ISIS in the Middle East.
This interpretation predominates even as we all know that the attacks in Brussels and Paris were perpetrated almost exclusively by European-born citizens of Belgium and France. Why are we talking about refugees and immigrants? We have a fearful need, perhaps, to believe that the threat exists outside ourselves—and that, by walling itself in, Christendom can protect itself from Islamic violence.
In reality, the first step to preventing future attacks is to acknowledge that the attackers, in this case, were in fact Belgians. The el-Bakraoui brothers of Brussels may have received training, supplies, and/or inspiration from ISIS, but their lives were in Belgium, and their decision to adopt jihadist extremism was doubtless informed by their experiences as alienated young men in a Western nation that has made assimilation for people of non-European descent extremely difficult.
People generally require some cultural or ideological framework within which to create meaning for their lives. Our goal, when we look at the events in Brussels, must be to fashion a society in which no one is so excluded from the culture—the social currents that contextualize and connect our lives—that the only recourse, for some, appears to be an ideology that grants identity through violent opposition. If we allow a sense of fundamental incompatibility to exist between “us” and “them,” Islamic radicalism will of course always be there to turn that incompatibility—for “them”—into a sense of deep purpose and inverted belonging. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful catalyst for jihadism than the exclusionary policies endorsed by Trump and Cruz.
Still, the Democrats—for whom the tragedy’s primary takeaway is that ISIS must be defeated—would do well to note Cruz’s fearmongering: he’s correct that the true enemy is “Radical Islam”—an ideology, not a group of people. We may wish to eliminate ISIS in the Middle East, but we must also hope that our future president will understand that you can’t kill an ideology with guns and tanks. In the West, the solution may be considerably simpler: an invitation, rooted in respect and acceptance, to a better way of life. Over time, French wine and Belgian chocolate will inevitably seem more attractive than a suicide bomb—but only if France and Belgium can first acknowledge that their Muslim populations, too, are French and Belgian and deserve, on their own terms, to be treated as such.
With or without ISIS, anyone can build a bomb; the important thing is to make it so that people don’t want to.