Response — February 13, 2017, 4:49 pm

The Indefensible

Victims of terrorism discuss Donald Trump’s Muslim ban

In March of 1985, three members of the Islamic Jihad Organization in Beirut captured my father, the journalist Terry Anderson. My mother was pregnant with me at the time, and so I did not meet him until he was released in December 1991, more than six years later. The man who came home was not the father I’d imagined. Being beaten, tortured, chained and blindfolded had changed him—made him numb, dismissive, quick to anger and slow to empathy. Looking back, I can see he did his best, but his kidnappers had robbed him of his ability to be an effective parent. They also took away my childhood and any chance my mother, my father and I had of being a healthy, functional family unit. That said, I don’t hate Muslims for what we went through. I’ve spent much time working as a journalist in the Middle East, and I know that people like my father’s kidnappers represent a tiny minority of those who adhere to the Islamic faith. Countless Muslims have treated me with respect, kindness, and hospitality. They have protected me in every conflict zone I’ve covered. Two of them saved my life. Like much of the country, I was outraged at U.S. president Donald Trump’s recent attempt to institute a ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and shut down the refugee resettlement program. A week after Trump issued the ban—which was halted by a federal judge—I reached out to other victims of terrorism and their families to ask how they felt about it.

Julie Paez is a survivor of the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, where fourteen people were shot and killed at a non-profit center that provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Paez: I don’t blame Islam or Muslims for what happened to me. ISIS doesn’t represent the religion of Islam any more than the Westboro Baptist Church represents Christians. I do believe that most [proponents of the ban] have good intentions. There is a lot of racism, but I do believe many of them just want to protect us. But this is giving us a false sense of security, because most of the people who have committed terrorist acts were United States citizens, like the guy who shot us. They may be of the Islamic faith, but they were American citizens, and this ban will not make them stop…When people don’t feel wanted and don’t fit in, they search for something that makes them feel like they fit in, whether that’s ISIS or a gang or whatever—groups that make promises to them that they can feel special. So this kind of ban will make things even worse.

Parents of an American hostage killed by the Islamic State in Syria in 2014.

FATHER: [The ban] plays right into the hands of extremists who need an us-versus-them scenario to justify their actions in aid and recruitment…From a counterterrorism perspective, it ultimately may cause more harm than good by further alienating each side from the other. On moral grounds it is simply indefensible. The condemnation of all for the deeds of a few punishes vast numbers of innocent people who only wish to live their lives in peace…Our son was murdered by a deranged man who grew up in the U.K. How can I blame his death on a Syrian or Iraqi family fleeing those same extremists?

MOTHER: I think that there’s an ample body of documentation to make the statement that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness are huge contributors to radicalization and when we have policies that take away a group’s power and hope it can be a contributing factor…I am convinced that ISIS is about revenge, not religion…and too many Americans think that refugees choose to come to the United States. The reality is that the choice is made for them by others. The life of a refugee anywhere, even in the U.S., is extremely difficult. It is not a life anyone would choose except through absolute necessity.

Terry Waite, Joseph Cicippio, and Terry Anderson were captured by the Islamic Jihad Organization in Beirut in 1985. Waite and Cicippio were held for five years. Anderson was held for six years and nine months.

Waite: Immigration has become a central part of the American way of life. America is a nation of immigrants and depends on them for its very existence. Now, suddenly, to cut off immigration in this way is grossly unfair and will rebound against America in the future…The majority of the Islamic community does not condone [terrorism] or believe in it, and would heartily condemn it. But we insist on condemning the whole of the Muslim world and grouping them under one banner, which is entirely wrong and unfair. The terrorists did the same thing to me—stereotyping everybody and saying ‘you will be punished now for the misdemeanors of a few.’ I can understand the fear and concern [of proponents of the ban], and I have sympathy for them. All I will say is that in my experience and that of some of us who have been victims of unfair and unjust behavior—putting people at a distance in this way is not the remedy. There are other, more creative, positive ways to solve this problem.

Cicippio: I don’t blame the Muslim world for what happened to me. [Terrorists] are the ones who don’t even follow the Quran. I read the Quran about 150 times while I was held hostage, and I know most of it by heart. It doesn’t say anything about any of that…It’s hard to get into our country, even if you have a visa. It sometimes takes you years just to get one…There are many people who are overseas who would love to come here, but they’re on waiting lists…This is not the spirit of America. My parents, everybody else’s parents all came in through immigration.

Anderson: I was kidnapped by a group of people that were…connected with militant Islam in Lebanon. They don’t represent the rest of Lebanon. They don’t represent other Muslims in Lebanon. They don’t represent other Shia in Lebanon. Why should we punish everybody including innocent people for the acts of a few? Those who support Trump, I’m not saying they’re all ignorant, but they have this tendency or ability to reduce complex situations to simple, thoughtless ideas…the world is a complex place and we will never be able to solve any kind of problems with simplistic thinking. [The ban] is stupid and destructive and I’m ashamed that we have been reduced to this. In fact, it causes people like ISIS to flourish.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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