For Ghassan and Sarmad Assali, naturalized Americans from Syria, 14 years of efforts to bring their family to the United States from Damascus unraveled this weekend at the stroke of Donald Trump’s pen.
They had applied in 2003 for Ghassan’s two brothers and their families to join them in Allentown, Pa., where Ghassan works as a dentist. Finally, last month, after an interview in Jordan, the relatives were granted immigrant visas. The Assalis bought and furnished a house for them.
“They landed at 7:45 a.m. Saturday,” said Sarmad, who goes by the name Sue. “We got a call from Philadelphia airport telling us if you’re waiting for somebody they’re not coming out. My husband said, ‘You’re joking.’ ” The family was sent back to Damascus, arriving Sunday night.
Of course, Trump cares nothing for the plight of the Assalis’ Damascus relatives, who arrived about 15 hours after the president signed an executive order on Friday suspending all immigration from Syria and six other mainly Muslim countries, and barring entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely. In fact, he cares nothing for Syria. Trump’s airy mention of creating safe zones in the war-ravaged country was an example of how the American president’s word — the basis of global stability since 1945 — has already ceased to mean anything. It’s noise.
Trump insisted his decision was designed to keep America safe, but the measure was rushed, uncoordinated, sloppy, arbitrary and punitive — the work of an impulsive man driven by anti-Muslim prejudice. Hatched by his inner circle in contempt of normal procedure, it has provoked a crisis. Trump has fired the acting attorney general who questioned its legality.
People are now stranded, many diplomats at the State Department outraged (Trump has told them to quit), allies agitated, artists and athletes disgusted by this un-American act. Former President Barack Obama, scarcely out of office, has dissented.
As my colleague Scott Shane noted, citing studies by Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, no one since 9/11 “has been killed in the United States in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.”
A draft dissent memo circulating at the State Department noted that, “A vanishingly small number of terror attacks on U.S. soil have been committed by foreign nationals who recently entered the United States on an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa.”
It said: “We are better than this ban.” As Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed of Trump’s order on the Lawfare blog: “This is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.” And here we get to the president’s character, doubly important when, as in the Trump White House, personality dominates process. For well over a decade Trump hosted a successful TV show that hinged on a spectacle of controlled cruelty — his summary dismissal of a contestant with the words “You’re fired!” All the action built toward the tantalizing moment when Trump brought down the guillotine. No doubt the experience offered him insights into the human fascination with power, as well as the human capacity for pleasure in others’ suffering. Certainly, in just 10 tumultuous days as president of the United States, Trump has demonstrated a streak of gratuitous cruelty. There is no other explanation for such a pointless measure that inflicts so much pain. Here in Britain a petition started this weekend against a planned State visit later this year by Trump has already gained some 1.5 million signatures. The government of Prime Minister Theresa May, desperate for Trump’s favor to offset its Brexit travails, has had to scramble to reassure British dual nationals who may have an Iraqi passport, for example, that they can enter the United States. Sir Mo Farah, the British Olympic gold medalist who was born in Somalia, and whose family lives in the United States, wrote: “On 1st January this year, her majesty the Queen made me a knight of the realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien.” The measure has given many this feeling they no longer belong. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini has British and Iranian passports, holds a green card, has an American husband and two American children, and works in Washington as executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network. She told me she’s unsure if she should travel to Germany in a few days on business. “It’s just insane,” she told me. “May talks about Churchill, but it feels like she’s appeasing Trump.” Trump does not retreat. He does not admit mistakes. That is not his style. This month, in tweets, he has written, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” and he has accused two prominent and dissenting Republican senators of “always looking to start World War III.” Impetuosity allied to cruelty combined with immense power equals trouble. The current storm would cause a normal man who’s a neophyte in a big job to reflect on other approaches. But is anything about Trump normal?