You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Republicans’ Frightening Response to the New York Terror Attack

Trump's rhetoric was extreme. The GOP establishment's was even worse.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We all knew the day would come when a Muslim immigrant “inspired by ISIS” committed an act of terrorism under President Donald Trump, as occurred earlier this week. We also knew how Trump would respond. “A moment like this was almost inevitable since Mr. Trump took office and sought to ban visitors from select countries with Muslim majorities,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote. “The terrorist attack in New York on Tuesday was the first by a foreign-born assailant on American soil since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and few were surprised that he saw it as vindication for his tough-on-immigration approach.”

To say Trump “saw it as vindication” is a polite way of describing Trump’s days-long rant after the truck attack on Halloween that killed eight and injured 12. He tweeted that he’s “ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program,” complained about “political correctness,” suggested New York Senator Chuck Schumer was indirectly to blame for the Uzbek-born suspect’s entry to the U.S., called for detaining the suspect at the camp at Guantánamo Bay (then abandoned the idea), and, most recently, pushed a different sort of punishment:

Most of what Trump has said can be dismissed, per usual, as hot air. There’s no indication that his administration has shifted its policy on immigration, and the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, was charged with federal terrorism offenses rather than being labelled an enemy combatant (which would have been necessary to, in Trump’s words, “Send him to Gitmo”). But the response from respected members of the Republican establishment is less easily dismissed, and should concern anyone who fears a revival of the foreign misadventures and immigration policies of President George W. Bush.

Predictable as Trump’s response to the attack was, his law-and-order tirade was not, incredibly, the most severe rhetoric to come out of Washington this week. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are often praised for their supposed foreign policy sagaciousness, showed themselves to be even more extreme than Trump. Both called for Saipov to be denied his constitutional rights, be labelled as an enemy combatant, and possibly be sent to Gitmo.

“The Trump Administration missed an important opportunity to send a strong message to terrorists and make America safer,” Graham said in a statement after the charges were filed. “This is a huge mistake. Very sad.” The South Carolina senator added, “It appears the Trump Administration is continuing the Obama policy of criminalizing the War on Terror by not declaring Sayfullo Saipov an enemy combatant.” Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, McCain said, “Take him to Guantanamo. He’s a terrorist and he should be kept there. And there’s no Miranda rights for somebody who kills Americans.” The Arizona senator offered a fuller explanation in this statement:

The terrorist attack in New York is the latest brutal, horrific example of the war that radical Islamist extremists are waging against our nation and our way of life. From Orlando to San Bernardino and Boston to Manhattan, we must not consider these attacks on our homeland in isolation, but rather recognize them for what they are: acts of war. As such, the New York terror suspect should be held and interrogated—thoroughly, responsibly, and humanely—as an enemy combatant consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict. He should not be read Miranda Rights, as enemy combatants are not entitled to them. As soon as possible, the administration should notify Congress how it plans to proceed with the interrogation and trial of this suspect.

Everyone agrees on this much: Saipov, who shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) during the attack, is a Muslim. He is also, per federal charges, an alleged terrorist; he told law enforcement officers that he was inspired by Islamic State videos and asked for an ISIS flag for his hospital room. In Graham and McCain’s eyes, this makes Saipov an ISIS soldier on U.S. soil—an enemy in the global war on terror. “The idea that America is not part of the battlefield is insane,” Graham told reporters. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” In reality, Saipov appears to be a lone-wolf terrorist who, the Times reports, lived a “rootless life” with his family since coming to the U.S. in 2010:

He wasn’t exactly an extremist. Mr. Saipov liked fancy clothes, a vanity frowned on in conservative Islamic circles. He cursed as if he couldn’t help it. He routinely showed up late for Friday Prayer at the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent. He displayed only rudimentary knowledge of the Quran.

Over the three years he lived in the area, he started to change, said Mirrakhmat Muminov, a truck driver and local community activist. He became argumentative, aggressive even, and started to grow out his beard. Mr. Muminov described him as someone “with monsters inside.”

Figures like Saipov turn to violence to give meaning to their troubled lives. Elevating these lone wolves as soldiers in a global war does exactly that, while also creating an incentive for copycats who are similarly in search of meaning. More importantly, America is not in a global war with ISIS, a regional terrorist group that’s in severe decline in the Middle East. Its threat to the U.S. homeland is extremely limited, consisting mainly of internet propaganda that occasionally captures the imagination of a desperate soul like Saipov. White American men are a deadlier domestic threat than Muslim foreigners.

That Graham and McCain took harsher positions than Trump did after Tuesday’s attack reveals that there’s still broad support in the Republican Party for an extremist anti-terrorism policy. Indeed, there’s a political incentive for them to exploit such attacks because the GOP is more divided than ever, as it fails to accomplish a single legislative achievement despite having full control of the government. For a party in shambles, terrorism is a godsend—a way for Trump to look like a leader and raise his dismal approval numbers, and for establishment politicians like Graham and McCain to make peace with Trump’s base while also halting the party’s drift away from hawkishness.

During the last election, Trump appealed to the emerging skepticism about military interventions, calling the Iraq war “a big mistake” and promising not to use the military for nation-building. His commitment to non-interventionism appears to be more rhetorical than real, but more and more Republicans—not just Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—are questioning the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legal justification for America’s global wars. In July, Democratic Representative Barbara Lee added an amendment to the defense spending bill to sunset the AUMF—and “was unexpectedly backed by Republicans,” The Hill reported. “GOP lawmakers, growing more frustrated with years of unresolved military conflict, are now pushing to create a new war bill specific to current conflicts.”

Tuesday’s attack isn’t likely to shift that debate substantially, but we now see the outlines of the Republican response should there be a deadlier attack that numbers in the dozens or even hundreds. Trump and the GOP establishment will engage in a politics of fear to promote retrograde military and immigration policies. Democrats must mitigate against the inevitable by leading the debate right now, with the help of likeminded Republicans. The global war on terror is an American invention, one used to justify disastrous foreign invasions, illegal drone assassinations, and obscene defense spending. This is no longer a controversial position to take in America, and perhaps, with time, it may even come to be regarded as patriotic.