When the planes hit the towers on 11 September 2001, I was asleep in my dorm room in Los Angeles. The phone woke me – it was a friend, frantic, repeating, “Nine-one-one! Nine-one-one!” over and over. “Oh my god, nine-one-one! Turn on the TV!” Nine-one-one is the number for American emergency services; it was also, obviously, the date – a meaningless coincidence that nevertheless felt surreal and foreboding on that incomprehensible morning.
Classes went ahead as scheduled, though they were sparsely attended. The only one I remember was a religious studies course on the history of Islam. Everyone was distraught; the professor just let us talk and ask questions; picking up where we were in the coursework (the life of Khadija, first wife of the prophet) seemed impossible. A few students were angry – they wanted the teacher to validate their instincts that something intrinsic in Islam was to blame for this unfathomable violence. (She didn’t.) A larger number, myself included, couldn’t help looking weeks, months, years into the future and dreading the potentially deadly discrimination and abuse facing innocent Muslims in America and abroad. The professor walked a cautious line, giving space for that understandable anger – the rubble was still smoking, people were still missing – while gently reminding us of what we had already learned in her class: the scope of Islam, its vast internal diversity, its potential to justify good or ill, just like any religion.
I also remember thinking, “Oh my God, I wish anyone else on earth was president right now besides George W Bush. Like, even a traffic cone with a face drawn on it.”
The reaction of Republican presidential candidates to the horrific terrorist attack in Paris and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has proven me woefully wrong on that count. There are at least 14 people who would make much, much worse presidents than George W Bush, and, alarmingly, all of them are currently running for president.
If you’re steeped in the news cycle 24/7, via social media, it’s hard to maintain perspective on it – but, as in that adage about boiling a frog, I hadn’t realised how explicitly racist and xenophobic American political discourse has become over the past few years . We’re not just stagnating, we’re backsliding. If you go back and watch the speeches of George W Bush from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he sounds downright progressive. You might even say “politically correct”.
“The faith of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace,” Bush declared in 2001 . “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” And then: “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims around the world. We respect your faith. It’s practised freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.”
Contrast that with W’s brother, Jeb, who said this week that he thinks we should enthusiastically welcome Syrian refugees, but only if they can “prove” that they’re Christian . (I’m not Christian, Jeb. Do I have to move to Syria?) Or Donald Trump’s new plan to forcibly register all Muslims in a database for “management” – an odd proposal for someone perpetually howling about the supposed authoritarian dangers of “political correctness”.
“We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” Trump told Yahoo news.. “They have to be.”
Ben Carson incomprehensibly compared potential refugees to “rabid dogs” , saying: “If there is a rabid dog running around your neighbourhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog. And you’re probably going to put your children out of the way.”
And Congress voted to tighten the screening process for Syrian refugees , citing security concerns, even though, according to the latest reports, every single one of the Paris terrorists was a European national , not Syrian. Meanwhile, in the past year, white Christian Americans have walked into schools and churches and slaughtered children and Bible study groups, while black men are being gunned down in the streets by the people they pay to protect them.
That’s not to let W off the hook. His eight years of nationalistic, “us” versus “them” word salad (“They hate our freedom!”) directly fuelled the rise of the Tea Party movement, which has acted like a lodestone to pull the mainstream Republican party to the far right. There’s been plenty of talk over the past few years about the “radicalisation” of young Muslim men. But what about the radicalisation of American rightwing Christians? The “right” to parade around college campus in blackface is being treated as a free-speech issue on par with death threats against black student activists. I have extended family members, apolitical for their whole lives, who are now flooding their Facebook feeds with white supremacist memes. Just today one posted a graphic photo, supposedly of bodies in the Bataclan theatre, with a caption blaming France for being an “unarmed society”. (We are no longer “friends”.)
It used to be that politicians had to cloak their xenophobia and Islamophobia behind coded language and tacitly oppressive policy. Today’s Republican slate, by contrast, appears to be embroiled in a game of oneupmanship as to who can be the most aggressively, repulsively retrograde and fascistic. You can feel, I think, in the more lucid among them, that they don’t believe the hate they’re sowing. But what is right has been abandoned entirely; all that matters is what appeals most to America’s least informed and most unhinged voters.
My dread is even heavier today than it was in that classroom in 2001. This is a moment when Americans get to choose what kind of people we are: are we guided by empathy or fear? Tested principles or spineless whims? Are we full of compassion or shit? If it’s the latter, then fine. Traffic cone with a face on it for president. At least it doesn’t know any better.
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