The Flawed Logic of Trump's Executive Order

How Not to Fight Terrorism

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order imposing a four-month travel ban on refugees entering the United States and a 90-day hold on travelers from Syria, Iran and five other Muslim-majority countries at the Pentagon in Washington, January 2017. Carlos Barria / REUTERS

Over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order freezing entry into the United States for citizens from seven countries for 120 days. The action led to protests at airports in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities, where refugees—including legal permanent residents—were detained. Later that day, a federal judge came to the aid of many of those trapped by issuing a ruling that blocked some of Trump’s actions.

Politicians on both sides of the political divide have criticized the order as haphazardly implemented and chaos-inducing. And, indeed, poor execution on immigration reforms does put the United States very much at risk, especially its soldiers and citizens abroad. Its execution aside, the logic of the president’s action was also flawed. The idea that keeping refugees and Muslim visitors out of the United States will decrease terrorist attacks ignores how many such attacks—here and abroad, where U.S. citizens are also killed—are actually prevented. 

The idea that keeping refugees and Muslim visitors out of the United States will decrease terrorist attacks ignores how many such attacks are actually prevented.

Perhaps the best way to identify terrorists before they strike is with information from the would-be attackers’ family, friends, neighbors, and presumed co-conspirators. A recent RAND Corporation paper reviewed 150 successful and foiled attacks in the United States from 1995 to 2012. It found that in almost 30 percent of the foiled attacks, the initial tip to law enforcement came from someone not involved in the plot. Similar data show up in research by Ohio State University Professor John Mueller. He reviews all 92 attempted attacks in the United States since 2001. Informants brought most plots to the attention of law enforcement early on, and many of those cases posed little realistic threat in the first place. 

Given such dynamics, police departments in the United States and elsewhere understand that community relations are a key to stopping terror. As New York City Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller pointed out

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