Within hours of the terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday morning, both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, leading candidates for our nation's highest office, had turned the deaths of at least 30 people into a campaign issue. Setting aside, for a moment, the callousness of any politician, regardless of party, leveraging another country’s horror to score political points, their comments were remarkably stupid.
First, Trump trashed Brussels as a “disaster city,” effused about how good he’d be at torturing people as commander in chief, and reiterated the urgency of sealing U.S. borders. Ted “I’m a Christian first, American second” Cruz’s response was no more nuanced, calling for law enforcement to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. “Radical Islam is at war with us,” Cruz wrote in a statement. “For over seven years we have had a president who refuses to acknowledge this reality.”
Cruz, who has adamantly defended Christians from religious discrimination and deemed 2016 the “religious liberty election,” went on to dismiss potential calls for Muslim tolerance from President Obama:
This is a common trope on the right -- treating any expression of nuance or compassion in the wake of terrorism as weakness, a spineless concession to the politically correct culture that supposedly got us in this mess in the first place. Against the backdrop of the current Republican primary race, these calls for increasingly barbaric displays of strength (Kick them out! Build a wall! Kill their families!) from the party’s front-runners ring particularly hollow, the death rattle of a group that sees its grasp on power slipping ever faster.
Neither Trump nor Cruz is engaging in a thoughtful discussion about a link between violence and fundamentalist organized religion (let alone one that isn’t limited to Islam). Instead, they’ve generalized and demonized the beliefs of over a billion people in service of their own political agendas, and, in the process, stoked the exact same fire they’re purporting to put out. This is some dizzying irony.
The idea that political correctness — actually nothing more than a call to treat our fellow humans beings with respect and dignity — breeds terror is inane at best, outright dangerous at worst. In reality, so-called “PC culture” flies in the face of recruitment tactics of groups like ISIS by countering the idea that Muslims and non-Muslims can’t live side-by-side. "We know that stigmatization, Islamophobia, discrimination help this radicalization of young Muslim people here in Belgium," Hajib El Hajjaji, director of a Muslim youth center in Belgium, told CNN a full year before Tuesday’s attacks.
"Good God, [ISIS is] probably cutting videos of this right now," terrorism expert Malcolm Nance later said on MSNBC in response to Trump’s comments. "Donald Trump right now is validating the cartoonish view that they tell their operatives ... that America is a racist nation, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and that that's why you must carry out terrorist attacks against them ... It's irresponsible and it needs to stop.”
Trump stumbled into truth when he later said on Fox & Friends that “the assimilation is very, very difficult, and in some cases impossible" for the thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe right now from Northern Africa and the Middle East. He’s got a point, though not for the reason he intended: It is hard to assimilate in another country. It’s borderline impossible when that country’s politicians encourage its citizens to distrust and dislike anyone who looks like you and your family.
Saying “this is what the terrorists want” feels clichéd, but it’s the most basic truth we have in moments like this, an anchor we'd wisely cling to when confusion and fear threaten to unmoor not just our ethical compass but our ability to think like rational people. The violent loss of innocent life is horrific, tragic, and infuriating. But elevating compassion over hate in the wake of terrorism isn’t just some bleeding-heart liberal moral imperative. It is the smartest, most practical, and, above all, strongest thing any of us can do.