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Julian Zelizer: US history has seen restrictive policies used in the name of national security

Following the London terror attacks, President Trump tweeted against "political correctness"

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

The United States must not let fear dictate politics or policy. And yet as soon as news broke about the horrific attacks in London, President Donald Trump tweeted out: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” The President, who is preparing to bring his blocked travel ban to the Supreme Court, has chosen to use this moment of fear as a justification to build public support for his controversial executive order.

He continued with even more tweets connecting his campaign rhetoric with the attacks. “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people.” In another, he went after gun control advocates: “Did you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

These tweets should give members of Congress pause. We have a long history of making bad policy decisions in times of fear. When there are threats to our national security at home or abroad, the government has moved in directions that are counterproductive – and often made conditions worse. Capitalizing on the fears of the electorate, politicians have many times implemented policies that undercut our civil liberties, enter us into costly and deadly battles that have little to do with the threat we face, and undermine our standing overseas.

This could easily turn into one of those moments.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 started us off on the wrong foot. As the US prepared for the possibility of war against France, President John Adams and the Federalist-controlled Congress enacted a series of laws that tightened citizenship restriction laws for immigrants and empowered the government to imprison and detain citizens who were seen as dangerous. The target of the laws was the opposition party, then called the Democratic-Republican Party, as much as any real or external threat.

During the Civil War, one of President Lincoln’s most controversial decisions was to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which allowed for the indefinite detention of “disloyal persons” without any trial, in response to unrest in the border states.

During World War I, the federal government and citizen vigilante groups rounded up German immigrants who had come from a country which was then fighting against the United States. On April 4, 1918, a crowd of drunken people lynched a German American named Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. Congress imposed harsh punishment against mail used to send “treasonous” material, a law that was used against anti-war magazines such as The Nation. Finally, under raids conducted by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, agents rounded up suspected immigrants and sent them overseas.

In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans based on fears that they would not be loyal to the nation.

And, during the early Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy went after alleged communists living in the US, destroying the careers and lives of many figures from the left who were caught up in this sweep.

With ongoing attacks on civilians by individuals directly connected or associated with ISIS, we risk making the same mistake once again. The courts have blocked President Trump’s proposed travel ban that targets some Muslim-majority countries on the grounds that it violates First Amendment protections for religious freedom.

Most experts agree that the travel ban would do nothing to stop the kinds of attacks that have been taking place in cities across Europe because most of the attackers are homegrown. Indeed, the ban does not include countries from which the 9/11 terrorists came. In fact, Saudi Arabia – one of the countries where most of the 9/11 attackers were from – just received a huge assistance package from President Trump.

The ban would also make it much harder for intelligence officials to work with communities where potential threats might reside, by creating an unnecessary barrier between federal agents and the law-abiding and patriotic citizens who are prepared to offer much needed assistance.

Worse yet, the travel ban would fuel extremism by providing the best propaganda possible that the United States is in a war against Muslims.

Rather than tweeting about the travel ban, it would be better for President Trump to focus on measures that would actually work. Cities and suburbs need to ramp up their protective infrastructure with better barriers and check points at vulnerable areas. The federal government needs to provide more funding for improved intelligence-gathering to discover threats before they emerge. And the President needs to strengthen – not weaken – relations with our allies in Europe, who are critical in working to counter the terror threat.

We need a State Department that is fully staffed so that it can conduct the needed diplomatic discussions with allies to build alliances against the terrorists. The US also needs to continue to gain ground in Syria and Iraq – frontlines in the war against ISIS.

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We can look to London as an example of how to move forward. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, told his city’s residents following these “barbaric” and “cowardly” attacks, that there was “no reason to be alarmed” about the heightened police presence in the city. He has reminded them that London is one of the safest cities in the world and they need to protect their democratic institutions and values rather than letting the terrorists destroy those. The Mayor said: “We are all shocked and angry today – but this is our city. We will never let these cowards win and we will never be cowed by terrorism.”

Taking the Mayor’s statements out of context, Trump this morning tweeted: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’

Shortly after the tweet from POTUS went out, Brendan Cox, the husband of the slain MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a man with extreme far-right views, tweeted to him in response: “You represent the worst of your country, @SadiqKhan represents some of the best of ours.”

The President, who undoubtedly disagrees with the assessment, would benefit from heeding this larger warning.