Feb 1, 2017

Donald J. Trump likes to sound off about ‘bad hombres’ sneaking into the United States to spread terror and crime. Bad hombres come in many shapes and disguises, not only as bad people but also bad ideas.  

The university student who allegedly carried out the attack that killed six people at a mosque in Quebec City would, one assumes, qualify as a ‘bad hombre’ in President Trump’s book.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail website quoted a friend of the suspect as saying he only became interested in politics after a visit to Quebec by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right. Soon he began spouting support for both Le Pen and Trump.

Bad ideas cross borders much more easily than people. Prejudice breeds prejudice; prejudice triumphant, however, is a vile call to arms. How does a previously apolitical chess-lover turn into a fanatical murderer? Ask Ms. Le Pen. Ask Mr. Trump. They seem to think they know a lot about bad hombres.

This is no time for fence sitting. Malcolm Turnbull was weak not to express an Australian ‘fair go’ opinion on Trump’s draconian approach to border control. Surely he was nervous lest the Donald should take offence and renege on the plan to receive refugees from Manus Island. Surely he was also nervous about appearing hypocritical.

This is the hard place where the Coalition finds itself stuck: hear no evil, see no evil––especially if doing so would shine a harsh light on the government’s own policies. The Prime Minister, by his silence, effectively equated Trump’s weekend shutdown with Australia’s border protection measures, at least in moral terms. Perhaps he sees no distinction?

What he should have said, as the leader of a free and independent nation, is that the targeting of specific national and religious groups (given the exception granted to Christians) for automatic exclusion and the suspension of an entire refugee program regardless of the hardship caused are entirely contrary to what Australians expect from a friendly power, apart from being unlikely to deliver greater security to Americans and their allies. Even Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, could not see his way past having to say as much.

Bill Shorten’s catchall ridicule phrase for Trump, ‘barking mad’, is not much use either. It is essentially a self-serving, political investment in ‘I told you so’ futures for when the next Trump excess comes along. Arguments against bad ideas and dangerous policies need to be mounted case-by-case: carefully, logically, calmly and relentlessly. In this case, although immigration policy might be a sovereign prerogative of each individual nation, the fight against extremist ideology and stateless terrorism can only be waged successfully if all nations that espouse universal values of fairness, transparency and equity stand up and fight for them. Australia cannot hope to escape the consequences of actions taken by ‘the West’ (in this case, by the so-called ‘leader of the free world’) that are calculated to alienate adherents of a great religion like Islam.

Put another way, having sent troops into Iraq to fight alongside Americans on one false basis, we cannot now remain silent while Americans punish law-abiding Iraqi citizens on another false basis.

In 1942, when the United States was at war with Japan, President Roosevelt issued an executive order to intern all Pacific Coast residents of Japanese ethnicity (including citizens) on the grounds of national security. It was a cruel and pointless exercise that history has rightly condemned. The temporary ban on the entry of travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries is not directly parallel to the internment of Japanese Americans (facile comparisons are always best avoided), but the two actions share one thing in common: they are driven by the populist mania for scapegoating and applying simplistic solutions to complex problems.

As far as we know, none of the people turned away or barred entry to the United States over the past several days represented the slightest threat to life and limb––no evidence to the contrary has been put forward. On the other hand, we do know that one bad hombre unleashed a deadly attack just across the border in Canada, his mind infected with the hate and intolerance that needs no passport to travel.

Walter Hamilton is a journalist of 45 years standing.

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