President Trump’s Travel Ban: Lessons from the United Kingdom?

Donald Trump

Lee Jarvis explores President Trump’s travel ban in the context of the British counter-terrorism experience

On Friday 27 January, President Trump signed his Executive Order introducing a series of ‘extreme vetting’ measures whose provisions include prohibiting travel to the United States from seven, predominantly Muslim, states- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somali- and suspending the US’ wider refugee programme. The order titled Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States immediately, and predictably, proved divisive and chaotic. Protests have been organised in countries across the world, including the UK; online frustration coalesced around the now-familiar #MuslimBan; the Acting Attorney General has been sacked amidst accusations of ‘betrayal’; families have been inconvenienced and much worse; and the long-term consequences for national and international security- to say nothing of human rights, and democracy- remain of course, unknown.

Although we should not lose sight of the step-change signalled by this blanket ban, it might be useful to situate this Executive Order in a wider, post-9/11 context, of counter-terrorism that extends far beyond the United States. This is worth doing not to diminish its absurdity: as has been widely noted, the seven immediate target states have collectively spawned a negligible number of terrorist incidents within the US to date. Rather, because so doing might help to highlight continuities within the security paradigms of allies in what used to be termed the ‘war on terror’; and, to point to potential lessons from the United Kingdom for President Trump’s administration. Four thoughts immediately come to mind.

First is the ban’s reinforcement of the persistently ambiguous designation of terrorism as a security threat which is, on the one hand, sui generis in its exceptionality (and hence requiring of extraordinary responses such as bans, border walls, and – for Trump, quite possibly- torture). And on the other hand, equivalent to -perhaps even interchangeable with- other contemporary security challenges such as refugeeism and transnational crime. Thus, not only do measures such as travel bans promise to target a wide range of risks whose resemblances might seem rather less than familial. It is the very blurredness of the distinctions between such risks- such that refugees might also be, or might also become, terrorists- that renders ‘us’ vulnerable and in need of new forms of protection.

Second, is the questionable importance of considerations of effectiveness in efforts to evaluate the ban. Measures introduced to counter terrorism often seek to fulfil multiple functions at once. These span directly increasing national security, reassuring anxious publics, communicating support to allies- or resolve to adversaries, through to demonstrating the continuing (if often devolved) importance of sovereign power. President Trump’s travel ban, in other words- which is inseparable from the populist rhetoric of his campaign from which it emerged- clearly has targets beyond reducing the ‘likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States’. None of this means that the ban’s rather questionable effectiveness for countering terrorism should not be highlighted and critiqued. It should. It does, however, suggest that demonstrating the ban’s dubious effectiveness does not, necessarily, in itself end the argument.

Third, is that the travel ban may well have long-term implications for how the United States is viewed by citizens, residents or visitors within and beyond its borders. A research project I was part of with Michael Lister, for instance, uncovered a huge range of public anxieties around the United Kingdom’s contemporary menu of counter-terrorism powers. These included concerns that such powers: were engendering a culture of suspicion; discriminated against members of minority communities in particular; did little to make the UK more safe from terrorism; and had considerable civil liberty implications including around political participation and freedoms of speech. The UK and US are, of course, different political entities with distinct experiences of political violence, citizenship and immigration. Yet, the wide-ranging and often profound concerns raised by some of the citizens within our research were articulated, typically, in the context of far less draconian initiatives than those we have seen emanating from the United States over the last week or so.

Finally, in some ways the ban seeks to reify a distinction between inside and outside- between ‘us’ and ‘them’- which has been central to the contemporary counter-terrorism experience on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US context, the ban builds upon President Bush’s earlier warning, shortly after 9/11, about the ‘evil folks [who] still lurk out there’. In the UK- particularly following the London bombings of 7 July 2005- the inside/outside distinction has been primarily a normative rather than spatial one: the primary threat being one represented by those ‘radicalised’ individuals who would seek to harm ‘our’ values and ways of life as well as our citizens.

A problem, in both of these cases, is that neat distinctions between inside and outside rarely remain neat. People and ideas continue to cross borders- whether based on geography or identity- and the policing of those borders seldom proceeds without collateral damage- whether in the creation of ‘suspect communities’ or actual border deaths of would-be migrants. A cautionary note, therefore, might be taken from the on-going frustrations faced in the UK government’s Counter-Extremism Bill. This is a Bill which appears to continue to fail satisfactorily to define its subject- ‘British values’ and its object- extremism’ and one which continues to attract criticism for its potentially discriminatory manifestations. President Trump’s ban may face fewer definitional challenges, yet the security it promises to an(other) imaginary community is likely to prove as elusive.

This post originally featured on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy Blog

Lee Jarvis is a Reader in International Security at the University of East Anglia. His books include Security: A Critical Introduction (with Jack Holland) and Anti-terrorism, Citizenship and Security (with Michael Lister). He is currently PI on the RCUK-funded project British [Muslim] values

Image Credit: Flickr

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