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Presumed Terrorists

Pakistan and the Muslim ban

Welcome to the United States! These are words that hundreds of thousands of people traveling to America yearn to hear after they hand their documents to the immigration officials sitting in glass box at the airport. The moments until they are uttered are pregnant with dread and anticipation. Entire futures, marriages, college educations, new jobs, medical treatment, and family reunions all stand suspended within them.

I know this mixture of apprehension and hope because it recurs amid the departure from rationality that attends the act of border crossing, even when all papers are deemed in order, and all boxes have been checked. I have stood before the men or women in the glass boxes as a visa holder, a green card holder and a U.S. passport holder; but even as I have ascended this stair of status to permissibility, I feel just as vulnerable at that moment of entry.

Last Friday, as President Donald Trump signed an executive order instituting his travel ban, a macabre and dystopian reality was unleashed on thousands of Muslims under hostile scrutiny at those glass boxes. Within hours, hundreds of people from seven Muslim-majority nations found themselves denied, detained and even deported. They included five-year-old children, eighty-year-old grandfathers, pregnant wives, even the mother of a U.S. serviceman. With a single signature, the recently lawful were now subject to banishment, dislocated from the hope of beginning anew—or from returning to resume their lives in a land many had long inhabited.

The aftermath of the travel ban has birthed new fears. Pakistan, my own country of origin, is not included in the ban but has featured prominently in the discussions following its institution. Pointing to numbers, critics of the ban have been eager to stress that terrorists do not come from the seven countries; but they do come from Pakistan. This they consider a defense, and to bolster it, they point to a single person, Tashfeen Malik, the wife of the U.S.-born man who carried out the 2015 massacre in San Bernardino. This woman, who was born in Pakistan but lived in Saudi Arabia most of her life  has become the de facto justification for the alleged culpability of an entire nation in terrorist plots against the United States. (This panicked threat assessment becomes even more insupportable when one reflects further that, though Malik had indeed been taking direct part in the San Bernardino assault, the level of her imputed volition is impossible to clearly establish.)

For the allegedly hard-nosed realists like Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot, now touting the Pakistan threat as a foil to the Trump administration’s travel ban and insisting that the “real” danger has been ignored, the lesson here is simple: the existence of this one terrorist from a country of 180 million is proof that all the rest are all terrorists until proven innocent. The ban on Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya may be unjustified; the ban on other Muslim countries may be entirely okay.

The casual acceptance of the logic of collective blame hands a rabid and malevolent Trump administration permission to expand the ban from the given seven to an even larger number.

This premise is incorrect, not least because it represents a first-order violation of democratic justice—namely an endorsement of the principle of collective blame: the punishment and banishment of many based on the acts of a paltry few (or in this case, based on the speculative portrayal of the motivations of one terror suspect). Offering up Pakistan as a supposedly damning counterexample to the countries now singled out for pariah status in the United States promotes the fallacy that the national origin of even a single assassin necessarily points to the existence of millions of others with similar sinister intentions.

Even more frighteningly, the casual acceptance of the logic of collective blame hands a rabid and malevolent Trump administration effective permission to expand the ban from the given seven to an even larger number. Indeed, during his appearance on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Reince Preibus, the White House Chief of Staff, smugly suggested as much: “You can point to other countries that have similar problems like Pakistan and others—perhaps we need to take it further,” he said with some relish, plainly as unmoved as all Trump apparatchiks are at the scenes of human suffering unfolding at U.S. airports. (Indeed, the president has gone out of his way to mock and bully those expressing compassion for the victims of his unjust and racist order.)

The 2016 election season that culminated with Trump’s surprise victory was rife with dissections of American dissatisfaction. The wronged white American worker, angered by the end of manufacturing, was a pronounced theme of most of the media postmortems on the vote. And alongside these accounts came many an earnest plea for more privileged Americans to show greater empathy toward this hypothetical everyman—a tragic collateral casualty of recent economic history, whose skills belong to another time and whose dignity and livelihood have been sacrificed to a world that had moved on.

In the aftermath of Trump’s travel ban, it would seem to be a matter of simple fairness to extend the same empathy to millions of others whose skills also do not match the economies of the countries where they were born. Rightwing American populist leaders rage against globalization and demand that manufacturing jobs must return. Yet this anger supplies zero moral justification for punishing and excluding doctors, engineers, geneticists, physicists from developing countries in the Muslim world. However, Trump’s travel ban does just that; you may be brilliant, it screams, but you are still unlucky by birth—and you are now also subject to humiliation and detention by the whim and fiat of an American president even if you never broke the law.