Twice, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has spoken out after a terror incident. Twice, his statements provoked a raging counterattack from Donald Trump and those around him.
In both cases, Trump and his team have taken public umbrage at Khan’s approach to managing his constituents’ response to terror — often by construing the mayor’s words to mean something other than what he clearly intended them to mean.
Here’s what the mayor said the day after terror attacks in London that killed seven people and injured four dozen:
“My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today. You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers. There is no reason to be alarmed by this. We are the safest global city in the world. You saw last night as a consequence of our planning, our preparation, the rehearsals that take place, the swift response from the emergency services tackling the terrorists and also helping the injured.”
Here’s how President Trump framed that comment:
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is “no reason to be alarmed!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
And, again later, after numerous commentators and media outlets noted that Trump had taken Khan’s remarks out of context:
Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his “no reason to be alarmed” statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017
Trump’s tweets are similar to his team’s reaction to the London mayor’s statement after an explosion in New York that injured 29 people in September 2016.
Here’s what Khan said about that incident (emphasis added):
“Part and parcel of living in a great global city is you’ve got to be prepared for these things, you’ve got to be vigilant, you’ve got to support the police doing an incredibly hard job.
We must never accept terrorists being successful, we must never accept that terrorists can destroy our life or destroy the way we lead our lives.”
Here’s how the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., framed those comments on Twitter … when he found out about them six months later:
Why do the Trumps insist on taking Sadiq Khan’s statements out of context?
Khan is, in some ways, a natural foil for the president. He’s cosmopolitan, erudite, and perhaps most tellingly, Muslim. But it’s hard to argue that anything he said in either case is false — or even opposed to Trump’s own view of terror.
The assertion that the threat of terrorism is an endemic risk to life in a global city is self-evidently true, as attacks on New York, London, Mumbai, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, and more have demonstrated. In calling on residents to support law enforcement and report unusual activity, Khan is echoing a major theme of Trump’s campaign.
Yet, in both cases, when Khan said, “Stay calm,” Trump and his team accused him of saying, in effect, “Terrorism is no big deal.”
Trump’s entire policy agenda depends on thinking terrorism is a huge, world-swallowing “big deal” — and Khan’s pleas for calm vigilance are a threat to that mindset.
A constant drumbeat of anti-terror agitating from elected officials can cause generate something like a permanent fight-or-flight response in the mind, according to psychologists who have studied the effect of terrorism on the human brain.
Sadiq Khan to BBC:” ..we aren’t going to allow anybody , whether it’s Donald Trump or anybody else to divide our community.”
— Laura Bicker (@BBCLBicker) June 5, 2017
“We obsess and then develop habits and rituals to ward off bad things. That can be watching TV over and over again to get more information, reading all we can in the media, and all of this is focused on warding off harm,” Eric Hollander, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told CNN in a 2016 interview.
In other words, the more political leaders and media outlets hype the threat of terror, the more citizens fear it in a way that is out of proportion to the actual danger it poses.
We can’t have a rational discussion about the appropriate response to terror if we’re scared to death.
When political leaders ratchet down the rhetoric, allowing citizens to take a step back and consider the evidence — i.e., one is far less likely to die in a terror attack perpetrated by foreign terrorists than in a car crash, by choking, or even a being struck by lightning — from a safe distance, it’s easier to generate a rational approach to the problem.
On the other hand, a scared populace can be more easily persuaded to make policy from the gut, regardless of evidence.
An anxious public is more likely to support right-wing leadership, draconian anti-terror actions, and restrictive immigration policies, if those leaders tie security to the presence of new arrivals, explained political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Gadarian in The Washington Post.
When fear rules the debate around terrorism, Trump benefits.
That very well may be why Khan’s persistent calls for caution and reason provoke such strong reactions from Trump.
It might also be why he insists on framing the mayor’s comments in the least generous terms.
The rest of us, however, could benefit from Khan’s advice.
Keep calm, remain alert, and talk to each other.
Terror is a complex problem requiring a complex approach. Should it come from law enforcement? The military? Diplomacy? A combination? How scared should we be? What’s a proportionate amount of mental energy to expend on worrying about it?
Regardless of what the solution is, we can really only discuss it if we’re not constantly terrified.
That might not be what Trump wants.
But with the threat mounting, it’s what the world needs — perhaps now more than ever.