It’s hard to “keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs,” as Rudyard Kipling reminded us in his poem of simple homilies, which every schoolchild once put to memory. It’s all about holding your own counsel, thinking hard, using your brain and keeping your cool when bombarded with the fashions and whims of others. Kipling, a Nobel laureate of the 20th century, was banished from the modern canon, naturally, as being terminally politically incorrect.
The poem “If” counsels aiming for truth even when it’s “twisted by knaves.” And the plentiful knaves abroad today not only believe they have a monopoly on the truth but are also good and pure of heart and entitled to impose their “truth” on everyone else.
That’s how and why the opponents of President Donald Trump twisted his executive order that temporarily bars all refugees as well as citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, countries that were identified earlier (by President Barack Obama) as likely sources of terrorists. The knaves are clearly bent on preventing reasonable discussion on what and why he’s doing what he promised to do. Few of us could stand seeing some of our own remarks snatched from context. The president is especially vulnerable because of his fondness for hyperbole.
It’s necessary to argue with reason and attention to facts because it’s the only way to have an honest debate about how to keep America safe in the age of terrorism. Characterizing the president as “deranged,” as one prominent journalist did, cheapens conversation and ignores the rational reasons that led to his decision to prescribe a new policy of “extreme vetting.”
Otherwise sad stories drive the debate — stories about families with visas trying to unite, women and children marooned at airports, and men and women who translated and spied for our side in dangerous places devoid of personal security. Such poignant stories overwhelm the emotions and smother legitimate discussion about how to prevent terrorism among us. The legitimate exceptions to the order, such as holders of green cards, were exempted only after the order sowed anger and confusion.
The president, who depended on the counsel of those of suspect competence, was betrayed as a novice in leadership. Raucous other voices, some of them bordering on hysteria, make rational argument difficult. Every new president has to learn, sometimes the hard way, that process is as important as substance. It determines what can be accomplished. The execution of the order was sloppy. That’s too bad because the president touched a nerve of Americans who are rightly in fear of terrorists who can come here under the cover of thousands of innocent refugees deserving shelter. The fear is not irrational.
No matter what this president does, angry antagonists on the left will object, protest and make decent disagreement impossible. The actual facts of the president’s order have been submerged in invective and loose talk. The order does not bar Muslims. It does not apply to dozens of other Muslim-majority countries. President Obama delayed visas for refugees from Iraq for a considerable time in 2011, and many hopeful immigrants with tickets were removed from planes or couldn’t board them. The circumstances then were similar but different. He was responding to a specific threat of two Iraqi refugees who were plotting to send money home to buy weapons and explosives for al-Qaida. The FBI later matched the fingerprints of one of the men to those lifted from a device discovered six years earlier in Iraq that was wired to detonate bombs, calling the quality of Obama’s vetting process into doubt.
Prevention is often a hard sell. It is made difficult this time because no immigrant from any of the seven countries named in the order has been implicated in a terrorist attack in the United States. An executive order, albeit temporary, is a clumsy mechanism for enlisting public support for a sweeping new policy on immigrants. You don’t have to believe Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s tears are real or applaud the protests at airports to see how the stories told by sob sisters of the media damage how America is perceived in the world. Such perceptions displayed on television and social media quickly become reality, like it or not. This, in turn, damages the new president’s ability to accomplish reasonable and worthy goals.
Americans are polarized. Europeans are nervous. Our friends in the Middle East are troubled. Iraqui Gen. Talib al Kenani, who directs the American-trained counterterrorist forces leading the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq, was prevented from visiting the U.S. He told CBS News how his own children asked him whether he’s considered a terrorist now. President Trump, like presidents before him, needs to beware of well-meaning advice (and the flattery of courtiers). The execution of his executive order missed the mark by a mile, and he’s paying for it.