In the Republican debate last week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich offered tactical arguments against Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims coming to the United States. The policy would make it “impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out” the Islamic State, Mr. Bush said. The United States is going to need a “coalition made up of Arabs and Americans and westerners,” Mr. Kasich agreed, and if we “call everybody the same thing, we can’t do it.”
Their argument is correct, and their responses were a cut above those of other candidates on the stage. Asked whether they would support a ban, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio all deflected the question with boasts about how tough they’d be fighting the Islamic State or keeping refugees out of the country.
But on the holiday set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr., it is worth recalling that tactical consequences are not the principal reason Americans should find the Trump proposal repellent. We are a nation founded on the ideal that every individual has value and deserves to be judged on his or her own merit. Each of us can make choices about the importance, to ourselves, of our racial or national heritage, our religion or lack thereof, our sexual identity. No one else has the right to make those choices for us. Being Muslim, or black, or Irish American doesn’t tell anyone else who you are, much less what you are worth. When we start judging people based on the categories they belong to, we diminish ourselves.
In April 1963, while he was in jail for leading nonviolent demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King, an Atlanta minister, faced criticism for having come from outside the state to stir up trouble. He rejected the “outside agitator” label. “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider,” he wrote.
That might leave room to think of foreigners differently; nations have a right to decide who may enter. But Dr. King would have been the first to say that recognizing the humanity of every person is essential in those decisions as in domestic affairs. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Dr. King wrote in the same letter. “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
That’s a precept that can be found in some variation in most of the world’s religions. It’s easy to preach, harder to practice. Our difficulty in sensing our place in that “inescapable network of mutuality” helps explain why a police officer may be more likely to shoot a fleeing suspect who doesn’t look like him, why we may be more forgiving of drug addiction when it afflicts people who do look like us - and why we can harden our hearts to desperate refugee children whose families worship an unfamiliar God.
What makes this campaign season so ugly is that leaders are not just failing the test of empathy but taking pride in their failure. We would hope to hear candidates for president making clear that bigotry against Muslims is wrong because it is wrong – because “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”