With the United States at the bottom of the nation’s worst ever economic depression, a newly elected president summoned Americans to be brave and resolute. “The only thing we have to fear,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address in March 1933, “is fear itself.” FDR went on to show the same determined fortitude as he put the United States at the head of a worldwide alliance that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
One by one, FDR’s successors in the White House have been called on just as he was to be brave and resolute in confronting dangers at home and abroad. History can debate their decisions perhaps: Truman in dropping the atomic bomb; Kennedy in defusing the Cuban missile crisis; or the first Bush in rescuing Kuwait and then stopping short of Baghdad. But these and other presidents all understood the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous admonition to speak softly but carry a big stick.
The current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls spread rather than confront fear and confuse bravado with courage and swagger with fortitude. With the lone wolf-style terrorist attack in San Bernardino fresh in mind, the overriding message from the Republican debate last week [Dec. 15] was for Americans to be afraid of ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called ISIS “the most sophisticated terrorist organization” the United States had ever faced. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, supposedly one of the sensible ones in the bunch, said that the United States “must destroy ISIS before ISIS destroys us.”
The butchers of Raqqa may be sophisticated in the use of social media, but they lack the organizational skills that their jihadist rivals in al Qaeda showed in the September 11 attack in 2001. They can capture Americans and other Westerners and murder them on camera. They can conspire with supporters or inspire them to carry out terrorist attacks. Note, however, that the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Farook and his wife Tash Malik, apparently were inspired not by ISIS but by the al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
In any event, ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States. ISIS cannot destroy the United States, but it can lead Americans to betray American principles. Thus, Republican presidential candidates call for closing the door to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, in shameful imitation of the United States’ craven policy toward Jewish refugees at the start of World War II. The GOP frontrunner Donald Trump goes a step further by proposing to ban all Muslim immigrants and dares to liken his proposal to the disgraceful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Politicians naturally pander to public hysteria, but the panic was fed last week by a respected legal academic, Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School. Writing in the emagazine Slate, Posner called for making it a crime to view websites that “glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS,” or to distribute images from such sites or encourage people to access such sites. The penalties for violations would start with a government letter for a first offense but would escalate to prison sentences.
Posner acknowledged some practical difficulties. As one example, he would make exceptions for bona fide journalists and researchers. But Posner batted away any concerns about freedom of speech. He approvingly noted that the government punished Southern sympathizers during the Civil War, anti-draft protesters during World War I, and Nazi sympathizers during World War II. None of these examples was anything for the United States to be proud of.
The country is at war, Posner writes, and, yes, it is a war of ideas. But the great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. answered that concern in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), one of the discredited World War I cases. The First Amendment presumes that truth will emerge from a free market in ideas, Holmes explained. “That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution,” he wrote.
Apart from any legal niceties, banning jihadist websites plays to the enemy’s view that the United States is at war with Islam. As the young commentator Jon Green notes on America Blog, ISIS and other anti-American Muslim leaders charge the United States and the West generally with hypocrisy in touting our freedoms but failing to extend them to Muslims. Green mockingly suggests that Posner’s article is a valuable recruiting tool for ISIS, so perhaps it ought to be censored.
More ominously, too many Americans have been feeding the ISIS narrative by open expressions of Islamaphobia not just loudmouthed crazies at public events but even government officials. In a telling episode last week, a rural county in Virginia shut down its schools for a day after word spread that a teacher in a class on world religions had had her students write a verse from the Koran in Arabic calligraphy as a classroom exercise.
The widespread intolerance toward Muslims clashes discordantly with the spirit of the Christmas season. And President Obama used his end-of-year news conference to echo FDR’s message from eight decades earlier. Americans could best confront ISIS, Obama declared, by “refusing to be terrorized.” ISIS is an enemy to be reckoned with, not to be feared. And Pogo's admonition seems to apply: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”