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What makes the haunted house genre so scary is that the hapless victims are trapped in a confined space from which it is almost impossible to escape — a house, a spaceship, the woods, the ocean — and they are being stalked by a terrifying entity that is malevolently irrational and supremely powerful. There can be no appealing to the beast logically or emotionally, no defeating it through sheer force. To quote Yeats, it is as “pitiless as the sun.”
For civilized societies, the absence of reason and compassion is the very definition of pure evil because it is a rejection of our sacred values, distilled from millennia of struggle. The manifestation of this evil can be supernatural (Poltergeist, The Conjuring), natural (Jaws, Alien) or a twisted version of humanity’s worst behavior (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street). President Trump’s recent executive order to bar citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has resulted in Muslim-Americans feeling as if we’re now trapped in a menacing haunted house battling a powerful but irrational specter. There is no escape, nowhere to hide, no one believes us when we tell them about the horrible noises (“Grab them by the pussy”), and no help from the authorities is coming because they’re already possessed and mindlessly doing the creature’s bidding.
The weakness in every horror movie is motivation. Do you really expect us to believe the ghost wants your severed head because someone dropped them down a well? Or that a shark wants to eat you out of revenge? Coming up with a believable motivation for the relentless entity often results in contrived and convoluted reasoning that forces the audience to struggle with our willing suspension of disbelief. President Trump’s Muslim ban continues this challenge to our suspension of disbelief because we can find no rational motivation for the scary creature’s horrific actions. His ban cites 9/11 as its rationale, yet the ban doesn’t include any countries that those hijackers came from (nor any countries that Trump does business with). Refugees who have already been vetted — which can take two to three years of intense scrutiny — were interrogated about their attitudes toward Trump. Some were forced to show officials their social media. Some were handcuffed without provocation. Even the federal government’s own lawyers, sent to justify the ban in court in response to an ACLU challenge, were unable to find legal support. When the federal judge questioned Eastern District U.S. Attorney Susan Riley on the government’s reasoning, she admitted, “[W]e haven’t had an opportunity to address the issues, the important legal issues.” When Riley was unable to even estimate the number of people detained, the judge said that was exactly why she would grant the ACLU’s request for a stay.
The audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is great for poorly written horror films, but when government tries to promote it to the American people, us buying into it would be social suicide. We can’t suspend our rational minds while a schlockmeister-in-chief turns our foreign policy into the tacky Plan 9 From Outer Space. The only way Trump can make a ban like this work, since it is so egregiously unconstitutional, is to convince the people that there is no legitimate source of truth except his administration. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway describes the president’s first week of extensive lying as “alternate facts” and, in a Fox interview, even used references that compared Trump to Jesus. Trump strategist Steve Bannon has called the media “the opposition party.” They are trying to convince the public that no one has the moral integrity to judge what they say or do. Just like the royalty of old that Americans fought to get away from, they rule through God’s grace and so are infallible. Just ask them.
A little over a year ago, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” Later that same day, he told reporters, “The United States cannot, and should not discriminate on the basis of religion.” Now he applauds Trump’s unconstitutional religious discrimination. Alternative facts? Or just a terminal case of brown-nosing? It is part of the administration’s contempt for the American people that they believe they can continually lie to us and we, including even former Trump supporters, will not fight back.
What’s even more horrifying than those cinematic stories of blood-curdling terrors are the real terrors and indignities that we are capable of inflicting on other people, with as little rational justification as the vengeful apparition or toothy shark. This country condemned Nazi Germany for its inhumanity while we incarcerated Japanese in our own concentration camps, which President Reagan apologized for when signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. When we passed that act, the country was announcing that we had learned from our mistakes and were pledging not to make them again.
Not so fast.
When the leader of the free world creates a hostile environment for Muslims, as this ban surely does, it can have violent repercussions as other racists and xenophobes are encouraged to act on their hatred. Sunday night’s shooting at a Quebec mosque where, during evening prayers, someone fired on about 60-100 worshipers, killing six (one gunman is in custody), is such a repercussion that we all share responsibility for if we sit back and allow such policies as Trump’s ban to define who we are as a country.
In 1939, a real horror story took place. The MS St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, carrying 937 Jews bound for Cuba, where they would live free from Nazi persecution. When they arrived in Havana, Cuban authorities refused to let them enter. Turns out that the whole voyage was a ruse, a devious publicity stunt by the Nazis to prove that the rest of the world hated the Jews as much as Germany, thus justifying their maltreatment of Jews. Shockingly, the United States aided the Nazis by also refusing to give the ship’s passengers refuge. We were the monster in the horror story. The ship had no choice but to return to Europe. When the ship’s captain threatened to run the ship aground in Great Britain, Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands offered to take in some passengers. But not all. Of the 937 Jews aboard, 600 died in Nazi concentration camps. So much for “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Today, because of Trump’s ban, we are trying to return Syrian refugees to a war-ravaged battleground where they could die. Have we not learned from our disgusting and embarrassing past behavior?
A movie version of the events aboard the MS St. Louis was released in 1976, called Voyage of the Damned. But in light of current events, we have to ask ourselves who the damned really are: the ones who are abandoned to face their deaths in concentration camps? Or the ones who abandoned them?
The sins of the past are never past redeeming if we admit to them. And vow to never make them again.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a New York Times best-selling author and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is a Muslim-American. His Twitter handle is @KAJ33.
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