Closing Borders While the Bullet is Within
On Sunday 11 June last, the American-born US citizen Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando’s LGBT nightclub ‘Pulse’. He used an assault rifle to kill 49 people and wound 53 further casualties. The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Mateen claimed to be an ‘Islamic soldier’ out to avenge the bombings of the Islamic State. Almost immediately after the shooting, Donald Trump tweeted how much he appreciated ‘the congrats’ he had received ‘for being right on radical Islamic terrorism’. In full-throttle campaign mode, he also used the moment to repeat his plans for keeping foreign Muslims out of the USA. A Hillary Clinton presidency, he claimed in contrast, would allow ‘thousands of potential Islamic terrorists’ to ‘flood into the country with the intention of slaughtering innocent Americans’. Despite the urge to dismiss Trump’s proposals as populist claptrap, it might just as well be worth our while to have a look at what he is actually proposing. Trump’s rhetoric of closing US borders has a precedent in past policies: over one hundred years ago American borders were closed to keep out potential political violence. What can Trump, and the rest of us, take from that historical attempt to foster homeland security?
Trump’s previous calls to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. got him plenty accusations of pushing racist agendas. Trump countered by arguing that his ideas were ‘no different than FDR’. He referred to Franklin Roosevelt’s authorisation to intern Japanese, German and Italian citizens as ‘enemy aliens’ in 1942. However, it is that other Roosevelt who provides a more interesting comparison in this context. FDR’s distant relative Theodore Roosevelt initiated strict immigration laws in 1901 that denied entry to persons with particular political ideas.
Keep the ‘enemy of humanity’ out!
About 115 years ago, Leon Czolgosz assassinated American President William McKinley. Czolgosz was a registered Republican, but after his arrest he claimed that his deed was influenced by anarchist writings. The assassination was largely simultaneous to a wave of anarchist terrorist violence in Europe. Like Mateen today, Czolgosz was actually born in the US but his attack nonetheless provoked calls to keep anarchists out of America and deport those already in the country. McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt declared ‘the Anarchist’ to be ‘the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind, and his is a deeper degree of criminality than any other. No immigrant is allowed to come to our shores if he is an anarchist; and no paper published here or abroad should be permitted circulation in this country if it propagates anarchistic opinions.’
Congress supported Roosevelt’s call and in 1903 the Immigration Act, or ‘Anarchist Exclusion Act’, was to be the first immigration law to exclude (potential) immigrants for their political beliefs. The Act listed among the inadmissible immigrants: ‘Anarchists, or persons who believe in, or advocate, the overthrow by force or violence the government of the United States, or of all government, or of all forms of law, or the assassination of public officials.’ Overlooking the many ideological variations between the few violent anarchists and the huge majority of peaceful anarchists, the law grouped all of them together. The Act’s anarchist provisions were even expanded in 1907 and 1918 due to fears of terrorist outspread after revolutionary upheavals in Russia.
Stopping ideologies at the border…
The Anarchist Exclusion Act provides clear insights in the workings and supposed gains of specific anti-political (or anti-religious) legislation. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, about fifteen million immigrants arrived in the United States. Many of them came from the discerned anarchist hotbeds of Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Latin America. Yet at the same time, between 1903 and 1921 only 38 anarchists were excluded from the United States. Banning anarchists proved to be almost impossible: immigration officials could hardly discern political thought amongst arriving migrants and violent intentions could not be identified on first sight.
Did the 1903 Act put an end to anarchist violence in the US? Quite the contrary. In 1908 and the years following the Act’s 1918 expansion, new instances of anarchist violence occured within the country. On the evening of 2 June 1919 anarchist bombs shook seven cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. One year later almost forty people – and one horse – died when a bomb exploded on Wall Street. The anti-anarchist Immigration Acts did not prevent anarchists from coming to the United States, and, more importantly, it certainly did not prevent them from getting a hold on weapons and bombs to repeatedly commit attacks.
…or preventing actual violence?
The mass availability of the means for carrying out attacks is still a pressing issue today. Trump calls for closing the borders and buying time to ‘figure out what is going on’, while it is already strikingly apparent what is going on: just during the weekend of the Orlando attack, five other mass shootings took place in the United States. In that very same weekend another 93 people died in gun-related incidents. In the four years preceding Mateen’s killing spree, there were approximately a thousand mass shootings with four or more casualties. This comes down to mass shootings on every five out of six days. The argument may be obvious, but it should be stressed time and again: the vast majority of mass shootings are not related to radical Islam, Muslim individuals in general, or any political motivation whatsoever.
An excessive focus on certain perceived threats might distract from actual dangers. US security faces bigger challenges than Muslim immigration. If Trump opts to suspend the latter until he figures out what is going on, one might want to take that time to consider the US Senate’s failure to restrict the purchase of firearms without background checks. One might want to sit down and have a look at a video circulating on the internet in which a thirteen-year-old tries to buy tobacco, alcohol, porn, lottery tickets and a .22 calibre rifle, but only succeeds in getting the gun. One might want to ignore the empty rhetoric on discriminative immigration acts, which have proven to be rather unsuccessful in the past, and focus on the steady rise of US mass shootings over the past decade. What is the use of closing to the outside, if the actual threat is allowed to linger on within?