I'm not a pundit or a partisan, I’m a person.
I was born in America, the son of a Mexican mother and Muslim father who migrated from the Middle East to America on a student visa. I grew up in the crosshairs of the Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza, returning to the U.S. in 2001: The threat of terrorism has cast a long shadow on my life.
I’ve spent two decades wrestling with a question that lies at the heart of President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE’s travel ban: How do we equally balance our civil rights and national security interests on the scales of justice?
I sympathize with those families who have endured even more extreme circumstances than mine to come to America.
During the 1990s, my mother, younger brother and I had our belongings searched upon arriving in Tel-Aviv to live in Gaza with my father. In 2001, after surviving a war that claimed hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and even some American lives, we ignored a temporary travel ban and took our chances to return to my birthplace, San Diego.
"I love you habibi," my father said, taking us as far as he could to the border. We walked down a quarter-mile security checkpoint, escorted by an Israeli soldier as a loaded machine gun was aimed at us from an outpost tower. Two armed soldiers called me to their vehicle. My mom panicked, showed them my American passport and pulled me away from the vehicle.
We were held at customs for 45 minutes, then sent to a separate room for a day of questioning. They checked our belongings, searched and disassembled our electronic devices and kept my mother’s wedding video tape for intelligence gathering. The vetting was intense, but in my opinion, necessary for a war zone.
Today, despite being an American citizen, I'm frequently “randomly selected” for pat-downs and questioned at airports. Two years ago, I was strip-searched after going through a metal detector. Speaking only for myself, if given the choice, I would undergo vetting every day if it meant those 3,000 fallen fathers and mothers on 9/11 could be joined with their sons and daughters again.
And while I disagree with the first implementation, I cannot categorically object to the current administration’s efforts to temporarily restrict travel from what the Obama administration identified as “countries of concern.” If President Obama’s former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, expressed concerns with our vetting process, then it’s sensible for President Trump to place temporary restrictions on these countries until his Cabinet determines whether better vetting procedures are needed.
To critics, the ban and the president’s call for "extreme vetting" are outrageous and bigoted, an infringement of personal rights. For me, this issue is far less simple. I find more thorough vetting sometimes necessary, given the inconspicuous nature of terrorism I’ve encountered firsthand.
I attended an Islamic school in San Diego as a child. The school was part of a mosque called Masjid Abu Baker, where hundreds of people prayed and maintained strong relations with local elected and law enforcement officials.
I knew of three men at that mosque, Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, who were issued visas. At the time they were faint figures of my childhood; now their actions haunt us all forever.
Those three men were among the 19 terrorist hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Under Osama bin Laden’s direction, they murdered 3,000 innocent people, and turned the community I lived in and country I love against itself. After finally fleeing a war zone, these men buried my family's American dream beneath the rubble of two towers.
Why weren't they more thoroughly questioned and effectively vetted? These men were hand-picked by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, and brought to America for the sole purpose of committing terrorism. They took flight lessons at Montgomery Field. The CIA identified them as al Qaeda operatives. The FBI came very close to stopping them, questioning local Muslims who heard of their plans.
We cannot commit the fatal flaw of thinking terrorism isn’t a legitimate threat. We’ve made that mistake before, when the CIA and FBI refused to certify efforts that would’ve enabled President Bill Clinton to take down Bin Laden, and the Bush administration ignored the CIA about the 9/11 plot.
If we want to defeat terrorism once and for all, we need to operate under a common set of facts.
First, foreign nationals from many Muslim countries already undergo extended periods of vetting before entering the United States. We’ve established a reliable process with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan. To impose even more intensive vetting on the entire Muslim world would be dangerous and unconstitutional.
Second, we do need stricter vetting on the seven countries Obama identified. Failed states like Syria, Somalia, Libya and Iraq don’t have the criminal and terrorist databases needed for proper veting. State sponsors of terror like Iran, which lead “death to America” chants in their countries, cannot be trusted. Sudan and Yemen continue to be unmitigated hotbeds for terrorism and were safe havens for bin Laden leading up to 9/11.
Third, though past studies show no attacks have yet occurred on U.S. soil from those seven areas, the threat has changed since 9/11 and the subsequent fall of bin Laden. After 16 years of losing ground, traditional epicenters of terrorism have now become decentralized networks, which means future plots will likely emerge from these loosely governed and terrorist-sponsoring countries. Case and point, eight years after 9/11, foreign national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the “underwear bomber,” who detonated an explosive aboard a U.S. airline carrying 298 passengers, was radicalized by al Qaeda in Yemen.
Fourth, all Americans, from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE to Donald Trump, can point to the War in Iraq and admit we played a harmful role when it came to empowering and liberating the Muslim world. We now have the chance to turn the page, and pave a path toward a more unified future.
The Trump administration can win support for its national security efforts among American Muslims and their families by vowing to protect their civil rights. With rare exceptions, American Muslims are proven to be peaceful contributors to our American economy and way of life. They have a lower tendency to commit crimes and abuse substances than the average American, perhaps due to strict adherence to their faith, are more entrepreneurial, have the highest educational attainment among women, and can be the first line of defense in reporting homegrown terrorists, such as the Fort Hood, San Bernardino, and Orlando shooters.
Moderate Muslims, like my friend and former colleague Rumana Ahmed, can help protect American lives and restore the original glow that once graced the face of Islam. Just like antivenom is derived from snake poison itself, America’s Muslims can be the solution to jihadist terrorism. We need to empower moderate Muslims throughout the world to speak up, speak out and reclaim the narrative of their faith from the darkest depths of extremism.
Ammar Campa-Najjar is a Mexican-Palestinian American and former Obama campaign and administration official. He is the founder of ACN Strategies, LLC.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The headline was changed at the request of the author, on May 19, 2017 at 10:45 a.m.
The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.