Magazine article The New Yorker

The Fear Factor

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Fear Factor

Article excerpt

The Fear Factor

In mid-September, Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani-American lawyer and writer, flew to Denver, to attend the annual conference of the Online News Association, where she was to present a paper on hate directed at American Muslims. She carried "Black Flags," Joby Warrick's account of the rise of ISIS, to read on the plane. Worried that passengers might be alarmed if they saw a South Asian woman engrossed in that book, she'd wrapped it in the floral cover of "Georgia," Dawn Tripp's novel about Georgia O'Keeffe. That is the sort of "passing," Zakaria says, that many American Muslims engage in "to appear to be unthreatening" in this season of terror and Donald Trump.

After Paris, Brussels, Orlando, and Nice, it seemed likely that reactions to terrorism inspired by ISIS and its ilk would influence the Presidential election, not least because of Trump's inflammatory efforts to elevate the subject. Then came last week's attacks. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, Dahir Adan, a twenty-year-old Somali-American, knifed ten people at a shopping mall before an off-duty police officer shot him dead; ISIS claimed responsibility, but Adan's motivations remain unclear. A day later, Ahmad Khan Rahami, a twenty-eight-year-old naturalized citizen of Afghan origin, who possessed jihadist literature, allegedly planted several bombs, including one that went off in Chelsea, wounding a couple of dozen people. It was the first successful terrorist bombing in New York City since 9/11.

As this dystopian Presidential campaign enters its final phase, the intermingling of persistent terrorism and resilient Trumpism is painful to contemplate. The candidates interpreted the latest attacks as an invitation to rehearse pugilistic rhetoric for the high-stakes debates. Hillary Clinton called Trump a "recruiting sergeant for the terrorists," because of his race baiting and his denigration of Muslims, while Trump told his Twitter legions that Clinton's "weakness" as Secretary of State had "emboldened terrorists all over the world." President Obama noted more measuredly that violent radicals "are trying to hurt innocent people, but they also want to inspire fear in all of us." He added, "We all have a role to play as citizens in making sure we don't succumb to that fear."

We might not be up to it. In May, Guido Menzio, an Italian economist on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, was removed from a flight out of Philadelphia and questioned because a passenger thought that his work on a differential equation looked like Arabic. Last month, in Queens, a man approached an imam and his assistant and shot them in the back of the head. Police charged Oscar Morel, who is thirty-six, with double murder but have not explained his motive. According to Zakaria, online searches for "Islamophobia," the neologism for exaggerated fears of the Muslim faith, often surge after terrorist incidents; so do searches for "Kill Muslims."

Trump's mainstreaming of bigotry has already damaged the country lastingly by ripping at its social bonds and popularizing a phony war on "political correctness" as an alternative to the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. Of course, Trump and his fellow-travellers aim vitriol and threats not just at Muslims. The wide-ranging ugliness at his rallies is there for all to see and hear; on Facebook and Twitter, trolls supporting him spread racist and anti-Semitic poison. …

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