The most recent major story about a jihadi’s family that I remember reading is this one, describing how the mastermind of the Paris attack was disowned by his father and sister after leaving for Syria last year. That guy might not have been deterred by threats to kill his family.
But whatever. There are two schools of Trump critics, one that thinks he means everything he says about what he’d do as president — mass deportations, bombing terrorists’ kids, you name it — and one that thinks his bravado on issues like this is mainly just about signaling strength to his fans without any deep commitment to carrying out those policies. (How serious about deportation can a guy be if he intends to let the “good ones” back in as legal immigrants?) I’m in school two. One thing we’d learn fairly quickly about President Trump, I think, is that he’d govern as a more or less mainstream Republican, especially once he started to staff up and ended up filling his ranks with many of the same ol’ careerist Beltway GOPers. The media’s begun to notice how he inches away from some of his more dramatically “un-PC” statements when there’s enough of an outcry. Trump himself has said his tone would be different as president. What’s going to happen to his mass deportation plan when he can’t get it through the Senate and can’t find the funding needed to do it via executive authority alone? What’s going to happen to his “kill terrorists’ families” approach when his advisors warn him about the Geneva Conventions and the media starts reporting on “blowback” and some members of the military refuse to carry out such orders? Maybe he’d insist upon those programs anyway, as his supporters want him to do. But I know how I’d bet. Admittedly, it’s a big gamble.
Either way, though, this is a clever move rhetorically to polish his Jacksonian cred. Hawks have been complaining since 9/11 that America’s big problem in waging the war on terror is that we fight with one hand behind our backs. Loosen the rules of engagement, increase the body count, and jihadis will learn fear. Killing terrorists’ families is Trump’s way of showing he’s on the same page. What he said about bringing back waterboarding a few weeks ago is right in line with it. That’s another idea that the political class in both parties is leery of but which lots of Republican voters would endorse on the principle that there’s no such thing as being too tough on terrorists. (Even if that means killing their parents, siblings, or children, I guess.) In both cases, it invites the media to put the inevitable follow-up question to Trump’s rivals in the GOP field: Do you agree with Trump that we should kill terrorists’ families? That’s a Catch-22 for someone like Ted Cruz. If he says yes, he’s endorsing collective punishment and going further than even a Republican superhawk like Dick Cheney went while in office. That’s not who Cruz, who supported the USA Freedom Act in the name of defending civil liberties, is supposed to be. If he says no, then he’s a squish who won’t do everything needed to deter terrorism, up to and including making a hard choice to liquidate a jihadi’s family if need be. Can Trump’s Jacksonian fans really trust a guy like that to be commander-in-chief?
I’m honestly surprised Trump hasn’t called yet for tactical nuclear strikes on jihadi strongholds like Raqqa. That’s the logical next step. Is he saving that for the general election?