Charen: It’s not what you say, but how you say it

SHARE Charen: It’s not what you say, but how you say it

A protest Wednesday against President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration started outside the Department of Homeland Security, 525 W Van Buren St. , before marching to Federal Plaza. | Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

On Feb. 9, 1950, during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Sen. Joe McCarthy brandished a piece of paper.

“I have here in my hand a list of 205 … known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department,” he said.

But McCarthy never released the names he supposedly had, and changed his story in the days and weeks that followed about exactly how many known communists there were in the State Department. McCarthy’s irresponsible grandstanding eventually got him censured by the Senate and contributed tremendously to discrediting the whole cause of anti-communism.


Though most textbooks gloss over this part in a rush to condemn the “witch hunt” era of McCarthyism, the truth is that there were communists in the U.S. government, and they were a serious threat. McCarthy didn’t have the names, but thanks in part to the Venona papers (the intercepted Soviet cables declassified after the collapse of the USSR), we do. There was Harry Dexter White, a top Treasury Department official; Laurence Duggan, head of the South American desk at the State Department; Theodore Alvin Hall, who worked on the Manhattan Project; Julius Rosenberg, an Army Signal Corps civilian employee; and Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official, among many others.

The parallel in our times is the Islamist threat. President Donald Trump is right that we face a threat from Islamic extremists. He is right that careful vetting of immigrants, including refugees, is necessary in light of that danger. The worry is that his ham-fisted approach to a delicate problem may wind up discrediting the effort to vet immigrants, alienating our friends in the Muslim world and empowering the self-righteous left.

Among the criticisms of the president’s action is the assertion that none of the recent terror attacks in the United States would have been prevented by this executive order. That’s too pat.

The terrorists at Fort Hood, Ohio State, Chattanooga, Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston were all Muslims who had become radicalized. The Tsarnaev brothers were immigrants (albeit from Kyrgyzstan, not a nation on the list). The Chattanooga shooter was an immigrant from Kuwait (ditto). Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a Somali immigrant, drove his car into a crowd at Ohio State and then stabbed 11 people. No one died, but not for lack of effort on Artan’s part. Another Somali immigrant carried out a stabbing attack at a Minnesota mall. Nine were injured, but not killed. So the left’s refrain that “no life would have been saved” by the executive order is really just lawyerly misdirection. Moreover, American assessments must surely consider Europe’s experience of threats from immigrants as well.

Muslim immigrants and refugees present special challenges because they — or as we saw in Orlando and Fort Hood, their children — are possibly open to Islamic radicalization.

This reality must be faced, and Daniel Pipes, who has studied radical Islam for decades (and has always stressed the distinction between the Muslim faith and Islamist extremism), has excellent recommendations for the kinds of questions aspiring immigrants and refugees should have to answer before coming to this country.

Alas, instead of stressing that our goal is to separate extremist Muslims from the majority of peaceable Muslims, President Trump’s slapdash executive order showed complete indifference to the distinction. Even green card holders, who have already been vetted and granted the right to live in the United States, were to be stopped at the airport with no notice. Why the rush? Would 48-hours notice have been too much to ask?

Translators and military leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan, who, at great risk to themselves, had worked with U.S. forces (and had been badly treated by the Obama administration), were originally offered no dispensation from the blanket order. That’s dishonorable and unwise, as it alienates all Muslims who might be inclined to side with us in a future struggle.

Trump’s order was not received in a vacuum. The international outrage was sparked at least in part by the context — that is, the president’s history of wild accusations (e.g., that thousands of American Muslims celebrated in the streets after 9/11), gross insensitivity (his treatment of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan) and sordid suggestions regarding Middle East nations (such as that the United States should have “kept the oil” after the Iraq War).

The problem of Islamic extremism is serious. It requires clear-eyed assessment of the threat, wise diplomacy and the ability to distinguish friend from foe. So far, President Trump has demonstrated only the first. In that, he resembles “Tail Gunner Joe.” Let’s hope he acquires the latter skills as soon as possible.

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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