Republican Debate: The Race to Repression

Screengrab via CNN

Be afraid. Be VERY afraid. This was the message of Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, the fifth GOP debate this year. Coming off the heels of yet another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, California, the main topic discussed at this debate wasn’t the economy or climate change but “radical Islamic extremism” and ways in which our government can keep us safe.

The proposals for ways to ensure our safety ranged from the authoritarian to the ridiculous, but all were concerning. Dr. Ben Carson suggested removing the constitutional right to freedom of assembly and, when pressed further on the issue, stated: “We need to make sure that any place—I don’t care whether it’s a mosque, a school, a supermarket, a theater…if there are a lot of people getting there and engaging in radicalizing activities, then we need to be suspicious of it.”

Never mind the fact that Carson couldn’t define what he meant by radicalizing activities, the American people should simply trust him to determine which people shouldn’t be allowed to assemble and which people should be. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with the fact that Carson is a self-described opponent of “political correctness,” we should just trust him to not discriminate against religious and ethnic minorities as he seeks to prevent radicalism.

Donald Trump, building on his statement last week that “we have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people…and we have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way,” suggested something even more ridiculous in America’s fight against ISIS: barring ISIS members and supporters from the Internet. Trump declared, “We should be using our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds, to figure a way that ISIS cannot use the Internet. And then on second, we should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS.”

Trump doesn’t seem to be concerned that such a feat is logistically impossible with today’s technology. What Trump, and many of his presidential competitors, are actually concerned with is appearing strong on defense, no matter the cost to American freedoms and traditions.

That’s why it was comforting to hear a lone voice of reason emerge during the debate, even if only for a moment. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), responding to the increasingly draconian security proposals of his colleagues, asked,

How do we keep America safe from terrorism? Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing. The question really is, what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China? Rubio says we should collect all Americans’ records all of the time. The Constitution says otherwise. I think they’re both wrong. I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them. I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won.

It’s clear that the GOP is seeking to appear strong on defense and security, and in the process is pushing other concerns like civil rights, the economy, social justice, and the environment to the side. That’s their prerogative, but the negative consequences of this strongman act could be a rise in discrimination against vulnerable minority communities, the depravation of fundamental freedoms, and the creation of an atmosphere of fear and suspicion between American citizens and their neighbors. At that point, America may suffer more from the actions taken to fight terrorism than from terrorism itself.