Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Syrian Refugees (and Terrorism)

I started this post a week or ten days ago with a somewhat different focus; I may get back to the broader issues that I was going to discuss. But for now, I want to focus on the issue of refugees.

America is a nation of refugees. For centuries, people have found their way to our shores, often to avoid persecution, violence, or economic privation. Most of my ancestors came to America in the late 1800s, in large part to avoid institutional anti-Semitism and pogroms, but also to try to make a better life than the abject poverty found in the Eastern European shtetl. Recently, America has seen waves of Central American children trying to escape gang violence and poverty. In years before that, America has accepted refugees from war zones across the world, from the Hmong to the Somalis, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Cuba. America has accepted refugees and worked to integrate them into the broader fabric of a ever more diverse American culture.

Sadly, I can’t say that America has always welcomed refugees. Even a cursory review of our history will show a degree of discomfort that waves of immigrants and refugees caused in the American population, whether it was the Irish, the Chinese, the Mexicans, or others, we have a history of not living up to our ideals when it comes to our treatment of and the welcome shown to refugees. And, of course, we have true stains on our history when we think about some of the refugees that we turned away, most notably (perhaps) the Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany but who could find no refuge and were thus forced to return or Americans of Japanese descent who we imprisoned on the basis of their race (while Americans of German and Italian ancestry were fully integrated into our armed forces).

Today, many in America, including many governors, want to turn their backs on refugees from Syria. I think that is wrong. I think that is un-American. I think that flies in the face of the very concept of American exceptionalism of which we are so proud.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

That poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty. That is who we are and who we must aspire to remain.

Let me be clear: I don’t think that it is America’s job to solve every refugee crisis; nor do I think that it is our obligation to accept every refugee. But as the world’s sole remaining superpower, as the largest economy on the planet, as a country with vast resources and vast territory, as a people who are more diverse than any other population on the globe, then I think that we have a duty to help when and to the extent that we can. It is part of the role of being that economic and military superpower. It is part of the role of being American. It is part of the role of being human.

“But, many of these Syrians are Muslim!” I hear many of you say. Yes. They are. So what? Are you honestly arguing that all or even most Muslims are terrorists who want to harm you or America? Seriously? Let me remind you that our Constitution has a specific prohibition on religious tests for public office. Do you really think that the Founding Fathers would have included that prohibition if they wanted a religious test for immigration or admission of refugees?

I understand, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris, that people are nervous about accepting refugees who might have among them members of ISIL or other groups who intend to do harm to Americans. I get that. And I think that it is a legitimate concern for which we must take appropriate cautions. But on that point, I think that there are several things to consider. First, the comparison between Syrian refugees flooding into Europe and those who might be admitted to the United States is a flawed comparison. For one thing, refugees have been walking into Europe in the hundreds and thousands, completely overwhelming the ability of governments to account for and deal with those refugees, let alone take the necessary time to do thorough background checks and isolate those will bad intent. Compare that situation to those seeking sanctuary in the United States who must undergo background checks often taking several years before they are permitted entry. If you were a terrorist intent on acting against Americans, would embedding yourself into a multi-year asylum process (with no sure success) that included detailed background checks be your best choice?

Furthermore, Germany alone is estimated to be taking in somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 refuges compared to a far, far smaller number that has been proposed for the United States (about 100,000 over the next few years). Don’t forget that Europe, especially Germany, France, the UK, and the low countries, already have enormous Muslim populations that are often segregated (self-segregated in some instances, economically in others) and exist as a sort of permanent underclass in those societies. Compare that to the United States where Muslims of Arab descent are a much smaller percentage of the population and much more dispersed throughout a much more diverse population. While Muslims and Arabs may be disfavored by many Americans, there isn’t the degree of underclass quality that defines America’s Muslim and Arab populations.

On that note, take a guess as to just how many Syrian refugees have already been settled in Indiana. Go on. Take a guess. 10,000? 1,000? 100? How many? According to Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration, since 2010, Indiana has been the refuge for forty Syrian refugees. Forty. But that may be overstating it. According to the Indiana State Department of Health Refugee Report Federal Fiscal Year 2014 (page 5), the number from 2012-2014 is just twelve. Review that report to see how relatively few refugees are settled in Indiana and where they originate.

Consider further how we treat other refugee populations and others who simply want to visit the United States. Visitors from the European Union don’t need a visa to enter the United States. Query then, whether we have more to worry about from terrorists bearing the passport of a European Union nation or a Syrian refugee who has undergone a multi-year background check? Most of the 9/11 hijackers traveled on (I believe) Saudi Arabian passports; none of them were here as refugees. Yet I don’t hear calls for bans on Europeans or Saudis from traveling to the US. Similarly, a refugee from Cuba need merely get his or her feet onto American soil to be entitled to claim asylum and stay in the United States. Yet until earlier this year, Cuba was on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. So how did we know that a Cuban refugee wasn’t here as an agent for the Cuban government to engage in terrorist acts? But I guess the Cuban lobby is more powerful than the Syrian lobby, even if Syria has never housed nuclear armed missiles pointed at the United States.

I think we also need to remember that, while it is possible for ISIL to embed a terrorist within the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in the United States, the brutality of ISIL is one of the things that those refugees are seeking shelter from. It would be a bit like telling a boat load of Jews fleeing the Holocaust that they aren’t welcome in the United States because we are worried that there might be a few Nazis hidden among them.

Consider further our role and reputation within the international community, both in terms of other nations and in terms of Arab and Muslim (and related) populations around the world. At least to some, the so-called “War on Terror” (and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) are part of a larger clash of cultures between Christianity/Western democracies and Islam/repressive regimes. While that is far too simplistic for most purposes, it is a lens through which many may look at the United States and our actions. When we stand up and claim to be the shining beacon on the hill and a nation and system to which others should aspire, do our actions match our rhetoric or do we appear as hypocrites who allow for repression of people that we either fear or can be perceived to simply not care about? Ask the question more simply: If we turn away Syrian refugees, will we make America more or less popular among the Arab Street? Will more Muslims turn to America as a sign of hope and strength or will they turn to ISIL as the force standing up to America? I believe that we need to show that our interest is not just in those who look and pray like the majority of Americans; rather, we need to show that American idealism and exceptionalism can extend to all people, no matter their race or religion.

I want to note two other points. First, I understand the fear of Islamist terrorism directed at America and Americans. We need to be vigilant and cautious. But we also need to take serious the threat of far right domestic terror. When Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center, we went to war. But when Christian nationalists destroyed the Federal building in Oklahoma City … we yawned. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi and we’ve had hearing after hearing after hearing and investigations ad nauseum. Nine Americans were killed in a church and, after much gnashing of teeth, we took down a flag. And what will we do after yet another attack directed against an abortion provider? Probably nothing. But what would we have done had that attack been by a Muslim and targeted a church or Hobby Lobby or Chik-fil-A? For that matter, what is the likelihood that we will hear a Presidential candidate suggest that Christian immigrants, Syrian or otherwise, be asked about their views on abortion or other social issues to be sure that they are not potential terrorists? What is the likelihood that we’ll hear a Presidential candidate suggest that Evangelical Christians be registered with the government or that their churches be monitored for radicalization or incitement speech?

Finally, there is one reason why we should be more concerned about the prospect for terrorism in the United States than should Western European countries: Guns. Those who perpetrated the attacks in Paris apparently had to smuggle their weapons from Eastern Europe. Compare that to America where even al-Qaeda has recognized and publicized just how easy it is for a prospective terrorist to acquire weapons. And don’t forget that the NRA — and those who accept NRA blood money — continue to allow those who are on the “no fly” or terrorist watch list to buy guns.

We should accept Syrian refugees. To be certain, we should subject those refugees to a vigorous background check so that we can be confident that we’re accepting refugees who mean us no harm. But we should apply that same rationale to other refugees seeking shelter on our shores. And, while we should certainly take seriously the threat of terrorism, we should be rational in our understanding of from where that terrorism may emanate and act accordingly. We can’t simply equate Islam to terrorism, just as we can’t preclude some Christians from those that we need to be cautious about. Our approach to refugees and terrorists must be both cautious and broad, without jumping to conclusions or making broad assumptions about huge groups of people on the basis of just a few and without ignoring potential threats because of a failure to directly line up to preconceived notions of who might be a terrorist.

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