How Aggressive U.S. Politicians Could Hurt Business at the Border

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The threat of terrorists striking the American homeland has been a constant source of worry for decades now, and politicians are using this fear in new and dangerous ways. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry recently declared that it was “a very real possibility” that members of ISIS had crossed the southern border of the United States. Although admitting that he had no evidence to support his claim, he appeared to use news of car bombs going off within the city limits of El Paso to draw attention to the idea. The news of car bombs going off in El Paso, however, was only rated as ‘half-true‘ by Politifact, considering that a car bomb had gone off — although on the other side of the border.

While this is the same kind of alarmist rhetoric Americans have come to expect from politicians, this kind of hyperbolic discourse can have a real effect on people and influence their political, social, and economic behavior. Public concern has grown alongside news of the Middle Eastern terror group ISIS (or ISIL). There is no doubt reason to be horrified by the actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but promoting the idea that the terror group is primed to strike on the American southern border is sensationalism and it can have an unexpected economic toll. People can’t help but take the claims seriously.

But despite the headline rhetoric, the Obama administration has largely shoved off speculation about the threat of ISIS at the southern U.S. border. The New York Times reports that the FBI and even the Department of Homeland Security haven’t found any credibility to the rumors, and have thus not taken them seriously. The rumors seem to fit a running theme among some conservative circles.

“There’s a longstanding history in this country of projecting whatever fears we have onto the border,” said Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, who represents the area in west Texas that is home to cities like El Paso. “In the absence of understanding the border, they insert their fears. Before it was Iran and Al-Qaeda. Now it’s ISIS. They just reach the conclusion that invasion is imminent, and it never is,” he said according to The New York Times.

So even if all of this talk about ISIS or any other terrorist organization launching an invasion from the south is just hyperbolic rhetoric, where’s the harm? Isn’t it better to at least have an increased sense of security and heightened awareness, especially during times of war and conflict? It can be argued that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but there is a flip side. Local economies can suffer if people are scared of visiting, or even continuing to live in them.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Put yourself in the shoes of a business owner in El Paso, or any other town near the southern Texas border. If your business largely depends on foot traffic, say a hotel or a restaurant, the last thing you probably want to hear about is a local sheriff conjuring up fears of a ‘Muslim invasion,’ or an imminent attack from a drug cartel or terror group. Naturally, that kind of rhetoric would mean that less people would be willing to visit your small corner of the world for fear of getting caught up in violence of some sort.

But since alarmist speculation has taken hold in the media, it leaves businesses in areas like south Texas vulnerable to dropping tourism numbers and other economic woes. One Texas Sheriff even went on Fox News and did exactly that, playing up fears of an ISIS invasion by stating that evidence of such nefarious activities had actually been found by authorities.

“The border is wide open,” Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter said. “There’s always a way to get across … we have found Muslim clothing. They have found Koran books that are laying on the side of the trail. So we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States.”

Now, if you’re offered a job in El Paso and are considering moving there, this is not the sort of thing you want to hear. You’ll likely find a job somewhere else if it means subjecting your family to violence. Of course, finding some clothing and books on a trail isn’t evidence of anything, really.

At the heart of the matter, the question is whether or not seemingly harmless hyperbole regarding terrorism and imminent invasions is truly harmless. It likely isn’t, and that’s something that needs to be taken into consideration by media outlets and politicians who choose to espouse that type of approach.

On a large scale, there’s no doubt that terrorism — or the threat of terrorism — has a major affect on economies. We have seen the fallout of terrorism scares take bites into the economy before, such as a few years back in Europe. A CBS News report from 2010 detailed a similar scenario in which law enforcement agencies warned of potential terrorist attacks in major European cities, which raised the possibility of economic harm. “I think if someone was looking for an excuse not to travel, then this is just the ticket,” George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com told CBS News.

Paris, Texas is certainly not Paris, France, but it’s not hard to imagine that the same type of logic would play out in the mind of travelers and tourists. Another report from the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also makes note of the cost associated with terrorism threats. But the report also takes into account the potential hit to business and economic investment, not strictly in potential tourism revenue.

“The cumulative effect is to reduce overall investment and retard economic growth,” the Australian government’s report says. “Increased terrorism risks and associated uncertainty also reduce consumers’ willingness to spend, particularly on discretionary items and major consumer durables, thereby reducing investment in consumer goods industries and depressing growth.”

So how do politicians weigh these threats of terrorism with the reality facing their constituents? Is it better to trump up unlikely scenarios for political gain, while putting local economies at risk? When a threat likely doesn’t exist, as in the case of ISIS trying to cross the Texas border, do leaders have a responsibility to those they represent to lay off with the rhetoric?

It may result in short-term political gain, or even extra votes at the ballot box, but engaging in the sensationalism of terrorism threats does more harm than good. People are aware that the threat is out there, but announcing that cities along the border are under attack or that because someone found a holy book on a trail does not warrant potential harm to local businesses and economic interests.

ISIS may not be inflicting any actual damage on the border, but that doesn’t mean that no harm is being done.

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