Recently, commentators have contrasted the public discourse at the time of 9/11 with the anti-Muslim discourse today. How can we explain this shift? There are a couple of things to think about.
First, 9/11 produced national unity. Events over the fourteen years since then have produced deep polarization.
The Presidential elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012 included vicious debates over national security and the Middle East, as well as many other things. In light of his subsequent wholesale adoption of Bush Administration policies, Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address(with its blistering critique of Obama’s predecessor, who was sitting on the platform behind the President-Elect) looks particularly gauche. On the other hand, the right-wing denunciations of Obama as a secret Muslim and a traitor are vastly worse. They remind one of previous conspiracy theories (like the de-monetization of silver–dear to the hearts of Democrats as the “Crime of 1873”–or that FDR knew in advance about Pearly Harbor–dear to the hearts of Republicans for several decades–to take but two examples).
Then the illegal immigrants issue actually does bear on this. The southern border of the US turns out to be incredibly porous. Inflows of people from Mexico dropped after the beginning of the “Great Recession.” No one thinks that this is because the border has been tightened up in a significant way. If Hispanic-Mexicans wanted to enter the US, then they could. But this is also true of Middle Eastern terrorists.
Second, after 9/11 it was possible to argue that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were a numerically insignificant element within the Muslim world. President George W. Bush emphatically made this case. Now, years of terrorism and conflict with Muslims may have produced a much deeper fear of Muslims as a group.
The Iraq insurgency revealed that lots of Muslims didn’t welcome Americans with bouquets of flowers. Instead, we had the appalling reports of IEDs and traumatic brain injuries.
The Iraqi civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis had a lot of horrible things happen. (See Dexter Filkins’ observation that you could always tell a Sunni killed by Shi’ites because a power-drill had been used.)
Zarkawi. Lots of suicide bombers who came from all over the Muslim world. There were bombings of NGOs like the UN Mission in Baghdad that killed Sergio de Mello.
Then there is the basic weaseliness of Pakistan. Whose side is our “ally” actually on? OK, Americans got sold a bill-of-goods on this. All the worse then that it is apparent that Pakistan is an Islamist state armed with nuclear weapons and cruise missiles.
Then, there were terrorist bombings in Madrid (2003) and London (2004). The basic lesson was that Islamist terrorists could reach out to Western capitals. The “Charlie Hebdo” massacre (January 2015) and the recent attacks in Paris (November 2015) added more examples. Most of these terrorists were “home-grown” radicals, instead of emissaries from some other place.
“Well, at least they can’t get to the United States.” Except that a truck bombing of Times Square in New York City failed for technical reasons rather than from having been prevented by national security organs. The “shoe bomber” and the “underwear bomber” who tried to bring down airliners failed because passengers and air crews stopped them, not because the government prevented them from boarding the air planes.
Then there is ISIS. On the one hand, there is the savagery of its methods. Captives get beheaded (without recourse to sending to France for a headsman as happened with Ann Boleyn) or burned to death in a cage. On the other hand, there are the tens of thousands of young Muslim men–and woman, if today’s New York Times is to be believed–who flock to Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadist cause. They come from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East mostly, but also from Western Europe and the United States. They are all evidently bent out of shape with Western countries for reasons that we do not well understand.
People seem happy to spin this state of mind as either “just being realistic” or as “more xenophobia.” Thinking about it as a historian, rather than as a polemicist, it seems to me that we should all try to reduce the recriminations. We have hit a lot of emotional chuck-holes. We haven’t fully absorbed or understood them. That is probably not going to produce a good policy outcome.