The New York Times hates Donald Trump's use of the issue of Islamic terrorism during his run for president. Patrick Healy and Thomas Kaplan's front-page story accused Trump of "a classic tactic of demagogy" in “Old Political Tactic Is Revived: Exploiting Fear, Not Easing It," while new writer Max Fisher went to amazing lengths to suggest that there's some doubt as to the killer's motive in “Trying to Know The Unknowable: Why Attackers Strike.”
You could tell the Times disapproved because it compared Trump’s tactics to those of the 2004 Bush campaign.
It was one of George W. Bush’s most viscerally powerful commercials against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race: a pack of wolves lurking in a forest as a narrator accused Mr. Kerry of slashing intelligence gathering against terrorists. “Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm,” the ad warned, as the wolves started running toward the camera.
Turns out the metaphor was subtle, at least by Donald J. Trump’s standards.
In his apocalyptic speech on Monday warning that terrorism could wipe out the United States -- “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left,” he said -- Mr. Trump substituted Muslim immigrants for the wolf pack. A single gunman carried out the Orlando massacre, he said. “Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re allowing now to come here?”
Evidently it’s Donald Trump, not Islamic terrorism, that is the real threat to America.
But Mr. Trump -- who drew harsh condemnation from President Obama on Tuesday -- has intensified the power of fear in presidential politics by demonizing an entire religious group. And he has expanded the use of that power by stirring up fear in the aftermath of national traumas, like the San Bernardino, Calif., attack and now the Orlando shooting, that traditionally elicited measured and soothing responses from political leaders.
At a time when other leaders would avoid divisive language and seek to unite both their admirers and detractors, as Mr. Bush did by visiting a mosque after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Trump appears wholly focused on the idea that America has reached an existential moment and that only he can save the country, a classic tactic of demagogy. The Orlando gunman, who was born in New York to Afghan immigrants, has given Mr. Trump his biggest opportunity yet to ask his own version of Reagan’s famous question from the 1980 presidential debates: Are you safer now than you were eight years ago?
Fear of terror is evidently the opposite of rational thought.
In the jittery aftermath of a terrorist attack, people find themselves leaning on “emotional reasoning, as opposed to thinking through these kinds of issues rationally,” said Samuel Justin Sinclair, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of “The Psychology of Terrorism Fears.”
But he also argued that the determination of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton not to use phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” -- which would surely antagonize Muslims -- was tantamount to minimizing or ignoring tough truths about the enemy facing the United States and much of the West.
To back up their point that Trump was all to blame, the NYT called in liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in between making her rounds at PBS and NPR:
...The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled that the “aroused demagogic fear” after Pearl Harbor had led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- something Mr. Trump has said that, while he hated the idea, he might have supported at the time.
(Internment committed under a Democratic administration, of course.)
Ms. Goodwin recalled the words of a young Japanese-American man from Seattle who had expressed shock at America as he was being herded off to a camp. “If we continue down this demagogic path,” she wrote in an email, “millions of our citizens may well be asking a similar question: Is this the same America we have known?”
Max Fisher, former writer for liberal “explainer” website Vox, is now “The Interpreter” for the NYT, but Fisher and his headline writer massively failed to do any of that in his first long, rambling piece, evading the obvious fact that the killer was motivated by Islam. The print edition headline: “Trying to Know The Unknowable: Why Attackers Strike.” The text box also played dumb: “Gays? Guns? Jihad? Perpetual debate on why violence occurs.” The online headline: “Gays, Guns and Jihad: Motives Blur on Closer Scrutiny.”
The only problem? The murderer called a local TV station and said he was acting in the name of ISIS: “I did it for ISIS. I did it for the Islamic State.” So perhaps Mateen’s motives are not so “unknowable” or “blurry” after all. Still, Fisher had 1,300 words to fill:
Long before Omar Mateen’s victims had all been identified, the presumptive nominees for president of the United States were clashing on a seemingly narrow question: Was the massacre an act of “radical Islam”?
Orlando, like previous attacks, has prompted an obsessive search for clues that might allow us to place this violence within a familiar context.
Here’s all the context one needs: Mateen’s phone calls to 911 and a local TV station declaring his loyalty to the murderous Islamic radical group ISIS.
But as more details of Mr. Mateen’s life emerge -- including reports that he visited the nightclub, Pulse, and used a gay dating app -- they have blurred rather than clarified these competing narratives. The question of why this attack happened, and the underlying question of what to do about it, have only become harder to answer.
Efforts to divine a motivation speak to something deeper than politics: a desire to make sense of seemingly senseless violence. Offering an explanation -- whether it is radical Islam or mental illness or homophobia or gun access -- is also a way of trying to comfort ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unknowable: the chain of personal experiences and decisions that led this man to murder 49 people in Orlando.
Again, it’s hardly “unknowable.” Mateen proclaimed loyalty to ISIS, a murderously anti-gay theocratic ideology within Islam.
As in the United States, these debates hinge on questions of individual motive that are impossible to pin down: Are terrorists motivated by religion? By economic marginalization?
Fisher kept things fuzzy until he got to the end of his ramble.
That may be what is so disturbing about the ultimate unknowability of Mr. Mateen’s motivations: not just that there will inevitably be another attack on another soft target in another unsuspecting city, but also that its cause can and will be guessed at, but never really understood.
Also on Wednesday, Kristin Hussey and Lisa Foderaro had an interestingly timed story on how a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the AR-15 rifle was going: “Newton Families Take Novel Approach in Suit Against AR-15 Rifle Maker.” Except they repeatedly referred to it as an “assault rifle,” a term of art that has no actual meaning.
For two years, a group of families in Newtown, Conn., quietly laid the groundwork for a legal case against the maker and sellers of the assault rifle that on Dec. 14, 2012, claimed 26 lives -- and shattered their own -- in less than five minutes.