There can be no doubt that ISIS’s brutal murder of two journalists had a deep impact on how Americans perceive the terrorist threat. For years, polls showed a war-weary nation reluctant to launch new military offenses in the Middle East, but the recent beheadings abroad changed the calculus on the public’s appetite for intervention.
But it’s also true that many voices in the U.S. have exploited the political value of fear.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) argued a few weeks ago that there’s “a very real possibility” that ISIS terrorists may have entered the United States through the southern border with Mexico. Soon after, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) added that the U.S. border is “porous,” and officials must “secure our own borders” to prevent “ISIS infiltration.” This week, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), now running in New Hampshire, echoed Perry’s original claim, telling Fox News that ISIS terrorists might “actually [be] coming through the border right now.”
Last night on CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined the chorus.
ANDERSON COOPER: Senator McCain, the president also said that we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland. Americans who hear those words might wonder, if that is really the case, then why do we need to take action against ISIS? To that you say what?JOHN MCCAIN: I say that today, we had a hearing, and there was testimony from the counterterrorism people and the Department of Homeland Security. There is Twitter traffic right now and Facebook traffic, where they are urging attacks on the United States of America. And there is a great concern that our southern border and our northern border is porous and that they will be coming across.
A few hours earlier on Twitter, McCain encouraged his followers to read a piece on a far-right website, which reported that the U.S. officials have “confirmed” that Islamic State terrorists are “planning” to infiltrate the United States through our southern border.
Is it any wonder so many Americans are afraid?
Perhaps now would be a good time to pause for a deep breath – and a reality check.
The basic facts are not in dispute. First, there’s no evidence – literally, none at all – of ISIS terrorists entering the United States through the southern border with Mexico. In fact, there’s no evidence of ISIS terrorists even trying.
Second, the southern border is not “porous.” The Obama administration really has increased U.S. border security to levels unseen in modern times.
But what about the report McCain promoted that said U.S. officials have “confirmed” that Islamic State terrorists are “planning” to infiltrate through Mexico? The senator may have heard what he wanted to hear, but that’s not quite what officials told lawmakers.
Despite some Twitter chatter, there is no evidence ISIS terrorists are trying to slip into the United States from Mexico, Department of Homeland Security officials told Congress Wednesday.Administration officials said they are more concerned about jihadists entering the U.S. legally on commercial airline flights.Administration higher-ups testifying at a House hearing Wednesday threw cold water on scary border scenarios cited by conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Francis Taylor, the undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, told McCain that there have been some “social media exchanges” among ISIS adherents about the “possibility” of entering the United States through Mexico, but none of the exchanges have led to action and Taylor added that U.S. officials are “satisfied we have the intelligence and capability on the border that would prevent that activity.”
So what are we left with? Some lunatics wrote some tweets about the “possibility” of trying to get into the United States. I don’t want to play semantics games, but it’s fair to say this is a far cry from Islamic State terrorists “planning” to infiltrate the country through Mexico.
What’s more, as Steve M. noted, “Let me remind you: Al Qaeda has never gotten anyone across the Mexican border to commit a terrorist act – and Al Qaeda clearly does want to pursue attacks on the West. We have to be watchful, but no, this sort of attack isn’t going to happen soon.”
It’s important to appreciate why Republicans are pushing this line. It seems pretty clear that McCain and others see the utility of Americans being afraid – if the public fears a domestic attack from ISIS, there will be stronger support for more and expansive wars.
But Republicans also want the White House to give the right what it wants on immigration: more border security in exchange for nothing. This rhetoric is intended to kill two birds with one stone.
No one should be fooled.