Fear and Extremism

Published: November 23, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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Since the attacks in Paris more than a week ago, so much of the political talk has centered on radical Muslims. (Although some leave the word “radical” out of the discussion).

Before a packed crowd on Saturday (Nov. 21) in Birmingham, Alabama, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said, “I want surveillance of certain mosques, O.K.?”


Earlier in the week, in Newton, Iowa, Trump said that he “would certainly implement” a database tracking Muslims in the United States. Speaking to a reporter from NBC News, Trump said, “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases… We should have a lot of systems.”

NBC reported “When asked whether Muslims would be legally obligated to sign into the database, Trump responded, ‘They have to be — they have to be.’ ”

On Sunday, Trump was called out by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler with 4 Pinocchios for insisting that he “…watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as [one of the twin towers in New York] was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

Former surgeon Ben Carson, polling second in the GOP presidential race, spoke last Thursday in Alabama offered more extremist rhetoric suggesting increasing background checks on refugees allowed into the United States to “determine who the mad dogs are.”

Out of a field of 14 Republican candidates for president of the United States, the top two in all polls are using extreme rhetoric believing it is a show of strength.

That’s not strength. It’s fear and prejudice.

It doesn’t take a degree in history to recall Nazis comparing Jews to rats, or President Franklin Roosevelt’s overreaction to Pearl Harbor by rounding up Japanese-American citizens and placing them in internment camps, to see the same pattern repeating itself today.

Only three candidates, out of the 14 have spoken out on Trump’s call for a database, and of those, only Jeb Bush forcefully called Trump’s notion of a national registry, “abhorrent.”

What Trump and Carson are completely oblivious to is the fact that all their extremist talk as well as the follow-ups on some cable news shows, plays right into the hands of ISIS.

Earlier this week, CNN replayed Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World hosted by Fareed Zakaria. In the hour-long program that documents the rise and success of ISIS, Zakaria makes a compelling point.

“…ISIS also manipulates U.S. television news. They put their videos online. We put them on television. … The angry rhetoric of table news fits right into the script.

“Fox News is a favorite of ISIS with commentators who demand boots on the ground playing into ISIS dreams of a grand battle against America.”

“…at the end of the day when Kobani falls,” FOX News military analyst Bill Cowan says, “… ISIS will be the big winner and the United States will be the big loser.”

“All of it,” Zakaria underlines, “is frighteningly effective creating a 21st century machine designed perfectly for the youth and built to recruit followers from across the world.”

“They will rise on Twitter,” an unidentified man tells Zakaria, “they will rise on YouTube, they will rise on Facebook.”

The vast majority of talk by Trump and Carson is blatant overreaction as both candidates play to their supporters.

Are the Paris attacks a wake-up call for the West? Of course they are.

Does the U.S. need to re-examine both its strategy and policy for defeating ISIS? Certainly.

Should that strategy include putting more pressure on European and Middle East allies to share the burdens and sacrifices? Absolutely.

But the only way we can defeat this new kind of enemy is through responsible calculation, not amped-up rhetoric about religious databases and “rabid dogs.”

Speaking at a California State dinner on November 18, 1961 – almost 54 years to the day – President Kennedy talked about how to respond during “difficult and dangerous” times.

“In recent months I have spoken many times about how difficult and dangerous a period it is through which we now move. I would like to take this opportunity to say a word about the American spirit in this time of trial.

“In the most critical periods of our Nation’s history, there have always been those on the fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan or a convenient scapegoat. …

“At times, these fanatics have achieved a temporary success among those who lack the will or the wisdom to face unpleasant facts or unsolved problems. But in time the basic good sense and stability of the great American consensus has always prevailed.

“Now we are face to face once again with a period of heightened peril. The risks are great, the burdens heavy, the problems incapable of swift or lasting solution. And under the strains and frustrations imposed by constant tension and harassment, the discordant voices of extremism are once again heard in the land. Men who are unwilling to face up to the danger from without are convinced that the real danger is from within.

“They look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders. They call for ‘a man on horseback’ because they do not trust the people. They find treason in our churches, in our highest court, in our treatment of water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, socialism with communism. They object quite rightly to politics intruding on the military–but they are very anxious for the military to engage in their kind of politics.

“But you and I–most Americans, soldiers and civilians–take a different view of our peril. We know it comes from without, not within. It must be met by quiet preparedness, not provocative speeches. …

“So let us not heed these counsels of fear and suspicion. Let us concentrate more on keeping enemy bombers and missiles away from our shores, and concentrate less on keeping neighbors away from our shelters. Let us devote more energy to organizing the free and friendly nations of the world, with common trade and strategic goals, and devote less energy to organizing armed bands of civilian guerrillas that are more likely to supply local vigilantes than national vigilance.

“Let our patriotism be reflected in the creation of confidence in one another, rather than in crusades of suspicion. Let us prove we think our country great, by striving to make it greater. And, above all, let us remember, however serious the outlook, however harsh the task, the one great irreversible trend in the history of the world is on the side of liberty–and we, for all time to come, are on the same side.”

If we are ever going to have a chance at defeating ISIS or any terrorist group, those who are running for the highest office of political leadership in this country need to stop pandering to fear and prejudice, and Americans need to turn away from the crusaders of suspicion and reconnect with that “basic good sense and stability” we demonstrated during dangerous times in the past.


  1. It’s scary how on-point Kennedy’s words are for situations today, especially the “fanatics” with their “appealing (according to polls) slogan[s]” and “convenient scapegoat[s].” What would he say about Trump, Carson, and all the other “fanatics” wishing to take the great and heavy post he once held? I feel ashamed to be an American alongside these extremists and their extreme rhetoric.

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