The Xenophobic Panic of the Aughts: The Lessons Learned

Exposing the most egregious examples isn't "gotcha" -- it's an attempt to prevent errors in judgment like the ones that I once made.
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In an item yesterday, I highlighted a 2002 column by Michelle Malkin that raised alarms about the presence of Iraqi nationals in America, warning readers, "How many of Saddam Hussein's sleeper terrorists are waiting dormant in the United States to retaliate against us when the War on Iraq begins?" Describing the column as "what needless, xenophobic panic looks like," I argued that it's useful to revisit fear-mongering from that era now that we know the answer was "zero."

The response was as you might expect: a lot of angry Michelle Malkin fans attacked me on Twitter, joined by writers from Breitbart.com, where my work is well known. One of those writers, John Sexton, pointed out in an ostensible "gotcha" that circa 2005 (when I was assigned full time to blogging the immigration debate for a California newspaper), I argued that President George W. Bush ought to make increased border security part of his immigration reform efforts. "Islamic terror groups know that security along our southern border is weak and have developed plans for smuggling terrorists into the U.S. across it," I wrote. "If a future terrorist attack is tied to operatives who sneaked across the Mexican border, Bush's legacy will suffer irreparable harm due to his stunning inaction on an obvious and preventable homeland-security weakness."

The most objectionable part of Malkin's column and her subsequent "In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror," is her singling out ethnic minorities at precisely moment when they were most vulnerable to having their civil liberties abrogated. Most people understand why prudence demanded that writers avoid maximally incendiary rhetoric about Iraqis on the eve of the Iraq War. Given that at the height of post-9/11 hysteria, Malkin wrote a book-length apologia for the internment of Japanese Americans -- the worst possible time -- it seems more than fair to tag her, of all people, with that criticism. Since the younger version of me opposed racial profiling, quoting my bygone work doesn't illustrate the point as well. 


But let me be clear about my self-assessment: Circa 2001 to 2006, I absolutely overestimated the threat of terrorists sneaking across the Mexican border to mount a terrorist attack. I haven't thought of those years in quite awhile, but I vividly remember my erstwhile colleague, Sara Carter, returning from reporting trips to Mexico with terrifying tales of a porous border, corrupt customs agents, and ruthless Mexican cartels who, her sources said, were all too willing to collaborate with Islamist terrorist cells. Those overblown fears never materialized.

In fairness to folks who still defend such thinking, they weren't ever disproved as definitively as the more specific worry that Iraqi sleeper cells would launch terror attacks upon a U.S. invasion. The decade after 9/11 saw substantial changes and improvements to border security. Counterfactuals about what would've happened without them are necessarily speculative. I don't think anyone, Malkin included, should feel ashamed for merely advocating beefed up border security as a counterterrorism measure. But I wish I had toned down my past warnings. We were safer than I thought. If I could repeat those years, I'd drop the immigration beat entirely and write about the subjects I cover now: executive-power excesses, civil-liberties abuses, killing innocents.

Nor is it just my journalism that I'd change.

I was in college when 9/11 happened, and my writing focused on Rancho Cucamonga, California when the Iraq War began, so I don't have a contemporaneous record of my opinions like a lot of bloggers do. Foggy as my memory is, however, I'm certain that I felt needless xenophobic panic worrying over the next attack by suicide bombers I just knew would come. I don't want to exaggerate, as if I was walking around afraid of my shadow. I flew regularly. I applied to graduate school in New York City. But I felt anxious in the weeks after 9/11, while studying abroad in Sevilla as Osama bin Laden talked about reclaiming Andalusia; I played underinformed devil's advocate in conversations about Iraq, trying to figure out whether I thought Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States; like a lot of Americans, I wildly overestimated the frequency with which future plots would occur, in part due to living under a color-coded terror-warning system and leaders who hyped many threats, but also because of errors in reasoning for which I alone bear responsibility and that I didn't even appreciate back then. I am sure that, despite my best efforts to guard against it, xenophobia crept into some of what little I wrote, precisely because I feared a foreign culture that seemed strange, scary and unfamiliar.

A decade later, all my irrational post-9/11 reactions remain unnerving to me.

There was always a world of difference between my thinking and In Defense of Internment, even before I started informing myself about the War on Terrorism and Iraq enough to write about them for publication. But the extremity of some policies being advocated caused me to underestimate the degree to which I failed to perceive or speak up against other truly heinous happenings. For example, I opposed the Patriot Act, torture, and internment, but didn't really think or worry much about the radical precedent the Bush Administration attempted to set with its treatment of Jose Padilla. And in the wake of the Danish cartoon incident, which I still regard as important because of its free-speech implications, I think I overestimated the danger that the Danes faced from unassimilated immigrants intent on advancing Islamist supremacy inside that country. As best I can tell, the worst fears of Bruce Bawer haven't come to pass, thank goodness.     

John Sexton of Breitbart writes that if I want to "play gotcha," I should probably pick an issue where I didn't "enthusiastically agree" with Malkin. I think that elides substantial differences in our arguments and approach, but if personal bias is causing me to underestimate our similarities, readers should respond by attaching appropriate scorn to my former and Malkin's current positions -- the point isn't playing gotcha, it's grokking that, in varying degrees, lots of Americans, myself included, reacted to the September 11 terrorist attacks in ways that skewed our judgment, clouded our ability to assess risk, and dissuaded us from dissent when it was most needed. Few went so far as to focus their professional life on decreasing the stigma against mass internment, like Malkin, who is a vital example precisely because we now see that neither the WWII internment she defended nor the racial profiling she advocates were necessary to keep us safe. But many of us, myself included, could have done more as citizens to speak up against the collective madness in our culture, joining the prescient dissenters who've been proved right. If something else I've written in the past embodies a wrongheaded War on Terrorism pathology -- if it serves as a particularly good example of dangerously mistaken thinking -- by all means, people of the web, cite it for everyone's benefit even if you aren't without wartime regrets.

It's reflection on my bygone failures along with dismay at reckless Bush and Obama policies that motivates a large part of my writing on civil liberties. As I look back at my earliest work, cringing at some of it, as all writers do, there are moments of which I feel proud, where I can see myself avoiding the worst of the post-9/11 madness, and taking care to write with awareness of past wartime excesses that hurt innocents. But the fact that I was complicit in some pathologies and failed to speak up enough against others, despite earnest attempts to be to fair-minded, has underscored for me the importance of the institutional safeguards America has built. It is precisely because none of us can be trusted with ad-hoc judgments amid frightening events that we have checks and balances in our Constitution, a Bill of Rights, laws against torture, limits on what our covert spy agency is supposed to undertake, protections for whistleblowers, procedural safeguards in the criminal-justice system, and a historically warranted stigma against rhetoric that singles out racial or ethnic minorities during war hysteria.

Today there is still a significant faction of Americans that would weaken those safeguards even more than has already occurred, so that the executive branch has a freer hand fighting Al Qaeda. Many of the same people who hyped the threat America faced prior to the Iraq War are up to no good again with regard to Iran and Syria. The pathologies of many War on Terrorism hawks proceeds apace despite all the significant things they've gotten wrong over the years, and the attempt, upon the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, to point out precisely what they got wrong isn't idle trolling. It is an urgent reminder that these people who seem so confident in their present pronouncements haven't even figured out that the most extreme of their past stances is wrong.

Little wonder that a drone program rife with xenophobia continues today. 

It is true, as every War on Terror hawk will tell you, that another major terrorist attack could happen tomorrow, and that we must remain vigilant against the threat. They're right. It could happen. It's reasonable to take costly efforts in an attempt to stop it from happening. It is also the case that the Bill of Rights is more important than preventing a terrorist attack, even from the narrow perspective of long term safety; that it is wrong to take innocent lives because you think it results in marginal safety gains; and that living in a republic requires courage of its citizens

****

Before I close, some brief comments on the strangeness of arguing with Michelle Malkin and the Breitbart crew. The whole pwning subculture on Twitter is always bizarre. Everyone is gathered around like it's a schoolyard fight, shouting encouragement as the person they're backing "lands a punch," and jeering at the other guy. "Should I call the cops?" one person Tweeted me. "Because @AceofSpadesHQ just smacked the shit out of you. Use a raw steak and it will feel better." As if the fight metaphor and violent language somehow translates to a real wound.

Emotionally, they're taken in by their own figurative language.

But the thing is, when people are sending angry tweets, you're actually just sitting at your desk, or on your living-room sofa. I was writing at a coffee shop that looks out at the ocean. Some pelicans were flying by. A four-year-old was playing in the plants. It didn't feel like a fight. In one of the dozen windows I had open, Ace of Spades, anonymous blogger, was claiming, erroneously, that I have a "deranged obsession with Palin's fake-preganacy fat suits and secret passageways at hospitals." [Note: Ace of Spades says this particular Tweet was directed at Andrew Sullivan. That wasn't clear to me, but I apologize for the error -- it was *just* the stream of misleading innuendo and the actually factually inaccurate Tweet noted below.] Dave Weigel, who knows as well as anyone that this line of attack is false, and thus couldn't really "get to me," tweeted that "watching when he's on a tear is one of Twitter's joys" -- an extraordinarily curious use of the #realkeeping* tag -- and added that "I have been on the other end of these campaigns. With enough therapy, one can survive." Lies [that should be "lie"] told by an anonymous dude filling one of several Tweetdeck columns on my laptop screen are supposed to require lots of metaphorical therapy? *

It's so melodramatic.

There's also a strangeness to some of the arguments these folks choose. Michelle Malkin taunted me on Twitter, saying I sent her email in 2006 asking her to link my work. I'll take her word for it. I aggressively sent my work out in those days to anyone who I thought might link, and I'd email Malkin stories today if I thought she'd bite. Her audience could use a radically different perspective. The thing is that her taunt ultimately relies on there being a stigma against her. The blow only lands insofar as I or others believe not only that she's toxic, but that she's so toxic I wouldn't even want to be caught writing her. Say that I felt that zing. Congratulations? It's the same when the Breitbart folks claim that, long ago, I applied to work at their site. Like so much of what they publish, it isn't so. But the insult succeeds only if the audience believes that it's so embarrassing to have applied there that no one would want to admit it.

Strange, right?

I've written about how "turnabout is fairplay" is the core ethos of the Breitbart sites. Everything unravels if the writers let themselves notice that most don't have a theory of journalism as depraved as theirs, and that public discourse does not operate in the way you'd expect from extrapolating fight metaphors. But I'm realizing something else about this corner of movement conservatism. Its writers and hangers-on are very adept at trying to exploit, as a weakness, the fact that most of their targets hold themselves to higher standards than the ones to which they themselves adhere.** This is most poignantly illustrated by what happened after some random person on Twitter directed racist rhetoric at Malkin, and I quickly Tweeted that people shouldn't do that.

Here is Malkin's response:

malkin tweets.pngYes, that's Michelle Malkin of all people positing that people are responsible for the ugliness of their allies on Twitter, as if I should be the one who feels ashamed by that metric -- something that could only be true if I let myself be shamed much more easily than she. Beware of that trick, allies.

__
*Another Ace of Spades Tweet: "In a two week period, , when you were a secret ghost-writer on , the deranged Sullivan offered 3 conspiracy theories." Yes, what a well-kept secret:

media-ite.png#realkeeping, Dave?

**Tellingly, what angers them more than anything is when someone says, implicitly or explicitly, "Yes, I am more ethical than you," a statement that is true for the vast majority of working journalists, but that most are reticent to voice, because they aren't perfect and it makes them a target. Humility is generally good, as is the certain knowledge that we're all flawed, and that there's always some peers, from whom we can learn, doing it much better than we are. But it is dangerous to behave as if sites and people that constantly publish falsehoods without correcting them and use the most vile insults in place of argument are somehow no worse than anyone.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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