The Faulty Logic in Trump’s Travel Ban

The president’s stated purpose was to keep terrorists out, but his plan has all kinds of problems.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

Exactly one week after he was inaugurated, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—from entering the United States for at least 90 days. Mass protests, wall-to-wall news coverage, and a series of legal challenges quickly followed.

Immigration lawyers and journalists camped out in the international terminals of airports around the country, seeking passengers from the affected countries as they arrived in a nation that appeared to have decided overnight that they were unwelcome. Judges in New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, among other states, temporarily blocked key provisions of the order; residents in these locales and elsewhere contested its constitutionality.

The president’s stated purpose was “to protect the Nation from terrorist activities,” and his focus was clearly on the Muslim world. Trump has a long-standing pattern of broadly equating Muslim people and Muslim terrorists—while at the same time seeming unable to see non-Muslim radical extremists for what they are. With the order that came to be known as the “Muslim ban,” Trump swore that he was focused on terrorism. But even by the president’s own logic, the ban was curious in its scope: He ignored the country that produced the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi Arabians, yet Saudi Arabia was not on Trump’s list.

The Islamic State has territory in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; al-Qaeda operates largely from Yemen; and al-Shabaab is based in Somalia. But as my colleague Uri Friedman has reported, nationals of the seven countries that Trump banned killed exactly zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015. The people around the world most likely to be affected by extremist violence are Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, among them the very nationals Trump banned with his order.

The president’s apparent yearning for a clash of civilizations—he would have made “a good general,” he recently mused—is inculcating a deep fear within his own people. The days following the introduction of the travel ban carried with them a kind of hysteria-inducing alarm. Especially for people whose countries and religious communities were targeted, the ban sowed dread: It kept families separated, halted reunions, and interrupted journeys spurred by the most essential human needs.

The travel ban was eventually green-lit, if watered down. The language is gentler, the provisions presumably more tightly restrained. But there is no remedy for the knowledge that a sitting president delights in the trembling of his fellow citizens. And there’s no escaping the knowledge that even when Trump modulates the volume of his cruelty, his targets remain the same.