How Trump Is Making U.S. Cities Easier Targets for Terror
Nearly every order he’s issued relating to national security runs counter to the principles and practices of the people who secure the cities terrorists try to hit.
This article was updated throughout at 5:15 AM EST, January 30, 2017
In one week, Donald Trump has made the United States a much, much more dangerous place for the vast majority of its people—those who live in cities—and terrorists are exulting. As the former head of Britain's MI6 intelligence operations, Richard Barrett, told the BBC on Monday: “The narrative of the Islamic State is precisely what Mr. Trump appears to be confirming—that Americans are against people of Muslim faith, they particularly discriminate against them in favour of other people. So it is this 'them or us' type picture that the Islamic State promotes.”
The divisiveness and anger spawned by the new American president may disturb the peace of other countries as well. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Sunday that he would take the refugees the United States turns away. But, ominously, within hours a mosque in Quebec City was attacked. Six people were murdered as they prayed and eight more were injured. The identities of the alleged assailants have not yet been released, but the mosque had a pig's head left at its door last summer, and suspicions have focused on anti-Muslim fanatics. Trudeau called the shooting "a terrorist attack on Muslims."
The initial implementation of the Trump ban on refugees and visitors and immigrants and at first even green-card holders from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen has been wildly confused. Travelers from those countries with previously valid visas have been stranded around the world. People fleeing religious persecution in Iran and seeking U.S. asylum—Evangelical Christians, Jews, and Baha'is—are being turned back from Austria where they normally would wait, usually for many months, for clearance finally to reach asylum in the United States. (The echoes of the U.S. turning away a ship full of Jews fleeing Germany before World War II are not lost on historically minded Europeans, especially after Trump's White House issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention whatsoever of the six million Jews who died.)
Inside the United States, where federal judges ruled those banned Muslims being held at airports must have the right to see lawyers, Customs and Border Patrol at Dulles Airport briefly opted not to comply with the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union reportedly was investigating other cases of noncompliance with the court orders in New York, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago when the White House reversed course on green-card holders—legal permanent residents—and ruled they should be allowed in. Meanwhile, protests have broken out in cities across the nation.
One's head spins, which probably is part of the Trump strategy—in the face of chaos his administration already is claiming the travel ban is "a massive success." The alt-right's alternate facts take shape as a whole alternate reality. But many of Trump's critics, focusing on the evident racism and bigotry of his policies, are missing one vitally important point that is key to understanding not only his strategy but the danger it poses for the majority of the people of the United States: in the supposed interest of fighting terrorism, Trump and his Rasputin, Steve Bannon, are attacking American cities. Or, more precisely, the people who live in them and the way they live in them. And the security implications of this campaign are frightening.
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In the real world, over the last 15 years American cities have gotten a lot harder for terrorists to penetrate and attack because federal and local law enforcement have come to understand and adopt some basic principles about working with, and sometimes monitoring, very diverse communities.
About 40 percent of the population of New York City, for instance, was not born in the United States of America. According to Trump’s rhetoric, including the language of his recent refugee ban and immigration decrees, that ought to make his home town a hell hole. But New York has rarely been more at peace or more prosperous.
Thanks to Trump’s new policies, it is unlikely to stay that way, but clearly Trump does not care. The cities never voted for him, and they were never going to. Trump was running against the cities, and it seems they knew it. His promised investigation of voter fraud will of course focus on urban areas, and if and when he gets the results, if they're honest, they'll probably show the cities where more than 60 percent of Americans live are the reason he lost the popular vote.
As The New York Times pointed out just after the election, in Manhattan—Trump’s home borough in his home town and ground zero for his eponymous empire—he got a pitiful 10 percent of the vote. In Washington, D.C., his nominal new home, he got 4 percent.
Trump’s campaign against the ravages of “globalization,” echoing similar campaigns in Europe by the likes of Marine Le Pen in France or Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage in the U.K., is essentially rhetoric that draws on the anger of people who feel they don’t fit in, or are being victimized, by the dynamic urban majorities in their own countries.
In every case, arguments of the rising demagogues are based on what Adrian Monck of the World Economic Forum recently called “nostalgic nationalism.” Its opposite, says Monck, is “cosmopolitanism,” an idea defined by Merriam-Webster as “having worldwide rather than limited or provincial scope or bearing.” But in American and European politics these days, as Monck puts it, “I don’t see many people sticking up for cosmopolitanism.”
Which would all be rather academic if the terror threat to Americans and Europeans were driven by the kinds of factors Trump has claimed to address in this first week in office: too much immigration, too many refugees, too many “sanctuary cities,” perhaps not enough torture.
But nostalgic nationalism is a very poor tool when it comes to keeping cities safe. Facts are more useful.
As veteran counterterror analyst Brian Jenkins at the RAND Corporation points out, a study of all the post-9/11 terror attacks in the United States leads to the conclusion that the danger is posed by ideas not refugees, or, as Jenkins puts it, “inspiration, not infiltration.”
“There is no way of predicting how many fewer terrorist incidents there may be as a consequence of the president’s directive—we cannot know things that don’t occur. Nor can we say how many American lives will have been saved,” Jenkins wrote me in an email over the weekend. “However, we can say that had this directive been in place since 9/11, it would not have saved a single life.” (My italics)
By Jenkins’s count, 89 Americans have been killed in seven jihadist terrorist attacks since 9/11. These include the 2002 shooting at LAX, the 2009 killing of an Army officer in Little Rock, Nidal Hasan’s 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 Chattanooga shooting, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, and the 2016 Orlando attack (which alone accounts for 49 of the 89).
“Others’ analyses show different numbers,” Jenkins notes. “This is always a problem, but no one’s numbers get us over an average of nine deaths a year at the hands of jihadists in a nation that has an average of 15,000 homicides a year.”
If perspective were wanted, that should do it. And as was reported widely and correctly over the weekend, not one of those attacks had any connection to a Syrian refugee.
Looking at these deadly attacks, it’s important to understand that “most of the perpetrators were U.S. citizens,” writes Jenkins. “None were from the countries included in the directive. That is the prevailing pattern. Jihadist terrorists are not imported, they are manufactured in the United States. Inspiration, not immigration, is the problem we face.”
Jenkins notes that, “The president has argued that some of the killings would not have taken place, even if the killer was U.S.-born as his family would not have been allowed in. That still would not have altered the outcome as none of the parents came from the proscribed countries.
“Anyway, I have no confidence in our ability to vet for the actions of future offspring,” says Jenkins. “No terrorist gene has been identified. If the actions of sons and daughters are the criterion, then no extreme vetting will suffice and the ban is absolute and permanent.”
One group of refugees on the list, those from Somalia, has been implicated by the actions of a few individuals. “In addition to the seven cases above, there are nine cases in which Islamic extremists managed to carry out an attack; eight of these resulted in injuries,” writes Jenkins. “In the recent Ohio State attack, the perpetrator was a Somali refugee. And in the St. Cloud stabbing attack, the perpetrator was also of Somali origin, but from Kenya and therefore would not have been affected.”
As the former head of Britain's MI6 pointed out, Trump's policies are a boon to those who want to inspire terror in the West. And Republican U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham described this disaster succinctly. They called it a “self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism."
In 2008, when I was researching my book Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD, I was struck by the delicate balance that law enforcement had to strike between force and persuasion in an urban environment a complex as Gotham.
“A city is not an abstraction like ‘homeland,’” I wrote, “it is home, full stop, to millions of people. And if you live here, and are part of it, what would you be willing to do to defend it? What wouldn’t you be willing to do?
“The job of securing any big city seems at first glance almost impossible; the results obtained in New York almost a miracle. What’s required is an incredibly sensitive equilibrium among disparate and contradictory forces: coercion and finesse, political expediency and public interest; basic cop-on-the-beat police work and sophisticated intelligence gathering; respect for the law but a willingness to bend the rules; ostentatious spectacle and secret surveillance; lots of police on the street, but maybe a few outside the country, cooperation with federal agencies, but also competition.”
There is no indication that Trump understands any of those principles, and there is every reason to believe his executive orders and statements over the last week, item by item, will make that vital equilibrium harder to sustain.
Consider his threat to cut off federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities. Why do they exist? Why do big-city police commissioners often support them? Not because they feel some moral obligation to protect undocumented immigrants, but because when you make crime-fighting police do the work of immigration agents, crime-fighting suffers: People do not report crimes, they do not cooperate with police, they avoid them at all costs.
In that same vein, when you make the point, as Trump has done with his orders and declarations, that all illegal immigrants eventually should be booted out of the country, all refugees are suspect, and Muslims from seven countries—with more to come—should be regarded as a threat, what’s the message? That a minimum of some 11 million people in the United States, and possibly many more, have no stake in its future. They are deemed outlaws.
That does not mean they will leave. It does mean they will become much easier prey for organized crime, which will promise them ways to survive and, yes, for terrorists who would encourage some of them to take revenge.
One of the factors that helps keep the peace in American cities is what’s called the American dream, which is based on an immigrant ethic—the belief that a better world can be built in a land of freedom—and is tied to basic respect for human dignity. That’s what has made America great. Period.
But Trump shatters that notion every day. One terrible and conspicuous example: his insistence that “torture works.” He wouldn’t name the “experts” who told him this, but it’s a fair guess they’re the little cabal of present and especially former FBI agents who saw defeating Hillary Clinton as a greater priority than investigating Russian hacking.
Meanwhile the professionals who might question such policies—people like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence—are being squeezed out of White House councils by an ideologue, Steve Bannon, who as recently as 2013 declared his desire to "destroy the state."
All this breaks down the understandings that allow people to live together by the millions in peace and security in urban America. Trump's voters in small-town America and gated communities may be complacent, even pleased, about what he is doing. But they were never the ones at risk.
In effect, Trump has turned a famous phrase of Abraham Lincoln on its head. What we are saying to the world now, and a vast swathe of our own population, is that this administration has malice toward many, and charity for none.
That is morally reprehensible, yes. But more importantly, it is no way to keep our cities safe.