By Bret Stephens
June 27, 2018
Congratulations, Mr. President: The Supreme Court has ruled that your third attempt at a travel ban is within the scope of your constitutional prerogatives. To nobody’s surprise, you trumpeted the court’s decision as “a moment of profound vindication following months of hysterical commentary from the media and Democratic politicians who refuse to do what it takes to secure our border and our country.”
All right, then: The ostensible purpose of your ban is to keep Americans safe from terrorists by barring visitors, refugees and immigrants from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. So let’s consider, non-hysterically, what such a ban might have accomplished had it come into force in recent years.
It would not have barred Ramzi Yousef, the Kuwait-born Pakistani who helped mastermind the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the American perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people were murdered.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Eric Rudolph, the Christian terrorist who killed one person at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and later bombed abortion clinics and a gay bar.
It would not have barred Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. Atta was an Egyptian citizen who arrived in the U.S. on a visa issued by the American Embassy in Berlin in May 2000.
It would not have barred Atta’s accomplices, all in the United States on legal visas. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and another from Lebanon.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which five people were killed. The attacks are widely believed (without conclusive proof) to have been the work of the late Bruce Ivins, an American microbiologist.
It would not have barred Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes. Reid was a London-born Briton who converted to Islam as an adult.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Virginia-born Army officer of Palestinian descent who killed 13 soldiers and civilians (including a pregnant woman) at Fort Hood, Tex., in November 2009.
It would not have barred Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009, with explosives hidden in his underwear.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt. The perpetrator, Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad, was a U.S. citizen at the time of the attack.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of Wade Michael Page, the white supremacist who murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
It would not have barred Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of Chechen background, who arrived in the United States as children.
It would not have barred Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani woman who arrived in the United States on a so-called “fiancée visa” after extensive screening from American consular officials. Malik and her Chicago-born husband murdered 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015.
It would have been irrelevant in the case of American-born Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 patrons of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016.
It would not have barred Sayfullo Saipov, the legal immigrant from Uzbekistan who murdered eight people when he drove a pickup down a New York City bike path.
I have just listed the 14 most significant terrorist attacks (or attempts) in the U.S. in the last quarter-century. Your travel ban would have done nothing to prevent any of them.
Nor would it do anything to prevent future attacks, even if it were widely expanded. A blanket prohibition on Muslim immigrants of the sort you proposed during the campaign might be more effective, but it surely would be ruled unconstitutional. A blanket prohibition on immigrants from every majority-Muslim country might conceivably pass constitutional muster, but it would be feckless: Not all terrorism is Islamist, and not all Islamists come from Muslim-majority states.
In other words, the policy you celebrate offers, at most, the illusion of security, purchased at an exorbitant cost to America’s moral reputation. In a different era, your travel ban would have kept out everyone from supermodel Iman to Steve Jobs’s biological father to the great scholar Vartan Gregorian.
We can only guess who (or whose child) is being excluded now, but we know what is being excluded: the idea of America as a refuge to the persecuted; an inspiration to the oppressed; a rebuke to the fearful and intolerant. As was written 228 years ago:
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that mere toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The author, the first of your predecessors and your opposite in every other respect, must be turning in his grave.