I’ve been thinking about Barack Obama lately, not because I suspect he requested a tap on my phones, or directed his agents listen through my flat-screen, although I like the idea of someone staging through hundreds of pages of transcripts of me ranting about how I can’t seem to switch channels without turning on the Xbox.
No, I’ve been thinking about the ex-president because of a conversation we had a couple of years ago now. Obama had been saying he didn’t consider terrorism an existential threat to the country, the way we once looked the specter of nuclear war.
I asked Obama when, theoretically, he would consider Islamist terrorism to be an existential threat. I expected him to say it would be when al-Qaida or ISIS managed to take down the computers that power our banks.
But Obama’s answer was different, and instant — clearly he’d thought about it. He said terrorism would rise to the level of an elemental warning only when we responded to some eventual attack, as a culture, by turning against each other and betraying our own ideals.
This was well before anyone considered Donald Trump a reasonable president of the United States, so Obama wasn’t talking about anyone in particular. Rather, he worried about some distant moment when America would without question continue to exist, but when the country as we’d known it the world’s most powerful symbol of liberty and tolerance might not.
At the time, I will tell you, I didn’t certainly agree. It seemed to me a couple of dirty bombs or some nerve gas on the subway would constitute a pretty existential threat, at least in terms of our ability to go on with our daily lives. I still do.
But Obama’s caution seems to me sadly prescient now and more pressing than he might have thought. It turns out we didn’t need another catastrophic attack to lose sight of our common judgment; we just needed a leader who would shamelessly exploit our darkest fears, with no regard for results.
Trump’s latest try at a travel ban from Muslim countries, which exempts legal residents and sidesteps an unlimited hold on Syrian refugees, would almost be a reasonable, cautious policy decision, were it not for two factors.
One is that we already vet these potential immigrants more closely than we do anyone else entering the country, Trump and his team are the only ones who require that terrorists are flooding the country disguised as refugees. The second is that we know what Trump is really after here because he’s pointed to his policy previously if Rudy Giuliani can be believed as a ban on Muslims, period.
Trump converted that brutality, but not before he’d created a new office at the Justice Department called VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, which is pretty much a bunch of words mixed up together in search of an acronym. His announcement of that entirely unneeded initiative seemed to me a chilling moment in his overrated address to Congress; it called to mind Nazi-era propaganda meant to blame every societal ill on an alien race.
What if Obama was right? What if this is the threat, more than any bomb or missile, that leads us down a path of which there’s no going back?
When does the governing greater part in Washington stand up and say: “Enough”?