The executive order freezing travel, immigration, and asylum from seven majority-Muslim countries shocked and surprised many. Its cruelty, bigotry and sheer carelessness were immediately evident. For those living with eyes open, however—those who had grown used to quickening at security checkpoints, to readying themselves for the extra frisk and bag search—it was an expected, if not inevitable, path for the United States to take, some sixteen years into the so-called “War on Terror.” More likely, the sense of understanding has deeper roots, reaching to the origins of the war for the greater Middle East—fear over the Iranian Revolution; the sidewinder theatrics of Operation Desert Storm. In those days, too, brown people were detained, accosted in the streets and beaten.
The order was assembled maladroitly. It entered the world unclothed by vetting, and it will likely not survive the courts. But as long as its raison d’être—the war—remains a reality for peoples around the world, the potential for such decisions will be active. Brusque executive action is only one way racial terror can take place.
In the supposedly halcyon days of the Obama administration, its covert assassination program abroad was accompanied by intrusive surveillance of Muslim communities at home. During Trump’s campaign, Obama forcefully repudiated Trump for his anti-Muslim comments. “Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently?” he asked. “Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?”
These were questions posed in bad faith, since Obama was referring to things his administration already did. As reported in Politico by Arjun Singh Sethi, the NSA and FBI monitored the email accounts of Muslim-American leaders; law enforcement marked Muslims who made large orders at Best Buy; people ended up on terrorist watchlists based on a stray Facebook post; and dense Muslim communities were singled out: Dearborn, Michigan, with its heavy Arab-American population, had more people on the watchlist than any American city save New York. The FBI opened its investigations without any specific criteria and was known to harass dozens of people. An official rhetoric of preferring “good” Muslims to “bad” Muslims, itself worthy of derision, undergirded a practice in which everyone was subject to unwarranted scrutiny, much as any Muslim, anywhere in the world, was subject to drone strike.
The US has been at war, either openly or by proxy, in the seven blacklisted countries for years. One—Iraq—has been subject to repeated American invasion and bombings over nearly three decades. There could never be a world in which people from these countries were repeatedly murdered, sent to black sites and tortured (and their torturers freed from any sanction whatsoever), maintained without charge in American prisons, tried in non-civilian courts, yet somehow be sufficiently protected against bigotry in the US. Under chauvinist Bush and worldly Obama alike, the consensus has been that some form of the war on terror is inevitable, and that, inevitably, some Muslims must be doggedly policed (or killed). The climate of fear is fostered, the violence tacitly sanctioned from above. Such is the price of freedom.
This is the specter that haunts the entirely salutary and bracing protests against this vicious executive order. These protests must be linked to the genocidal call Trump made in his inauguration to “eradicate” the roots of terrorism. Trump will not last, but the war would have gone on had he never won. There will be no end to the war against Muslims in this country unless there is an end to the war on terror.