The Fear Reflex

FranceLast Friday, several gunman from the terrorist group DAESH* attacked an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre in France, killing 129 civilians and injuring 430. This shook many Americans to the core, as France is one of our oldest allies and several American citizens were among the dead. Millions of us chose to take to social media to express our solidarity with the French people and our President pledged his support to hunt down those responsible.

*I’m choosing to refer to this group as DAESH rather than ISIS, because they perceive DAESH as a pejorative term.

A whole new set of issues presented themselves once we learned that many of the terrorists snuck into France among groups of refugees fleeing a civil war in Syria, which DAESH is involved in. This put our own refugee resettlement program into sharp focus, with many state governors and other politicians announcing their opposition to the resettlement of any Syrian refugees within their borders. Many of these politicians, such as Texas Governor Greg Abbott, cite national security concerns as well as the inadequacy of our screening procedures for letting in the refugees.

However, refugees are the single most vetted group that attempts to enter the country. The State Department’s website details the long and involved process that refugees must go through in order to cross the border, including background checks, health screenings, in-person interviews, and many other steps. The whole process takes around 18-24 months, and many refugees in temporary shelters in Turkey have waited at least that long. While no system is foolproof, the idea that we’re letting streams of refugees flood into the country with few security measures taken is patently false.

Despite politicians' efforts to paint the refugee resettlement program as lax, its screening process is actually quite strict.
Despite politicians’ efforts to paint the refugee resettlement program as lax, its screening process is actually quite strict.

America has always been a nation of immigrants. Somewhat ironically, France gave us our greatest symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Yet because of the attacks on France, we’re about to slam the door in the face of many people who are desperate to escape violence in their country, and in doing so, we may be signing their death warrants. The whole episode bears disturbing parallels to the story of the SS St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees from World War II that were treated with a mixture of “ambivalence and outright hostility,” and were sent back. Many of the inhabitants of this ship were killed by the Nazis upon their return. Anne Frank’s father Otto even sought an American visa, but the country’s oppressive immigration laws (that many now regard as deliberately set up to hinder Jewish immigration) prevented him from doing so. The United States also placed several Japanese-Americans into internment camps that weren’t much better than Nazi concentration camps, believing that some of them were spies. The efforts to hinder Syrian immigration seek to paint all Muslims with a similarly broad brush, and assume that all or most of them are terrorists.

Another awful irony in this whole debate is that many of the same politicians that express such prejudiced attitudes are the same ones that say we should bomb the hell out of DAESH. Such hawkish rhetoric against the terrorists is understandable, but the reflexive exclusion of these people out of fear plays right into the terrorists’ hands. The entire point of terrorist attacks is to strike fear into the hearts of a country’s citizenry, in the hopes that this fear will paralyze the nation. DAESH wants us to be scared, because then it will be much easier for them to set up the oppressive Islamic caliphate that is their dream and goal. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush said that we would not be frightened into chaos and retreat. Accepting these refugees would not only hinder DAESH’s plans, but would send a message that their attempts to terrorize this nation have not succeeded.

For his part, President Obama has said that we will continue to accept the refugees with the proper screening procedures, and while the state governors can issue executive orders instructing state agencies not to cooperate in refugee resettlement efforts, the federal government can still resettle the refugees using federal agencies. However, several members of Congress have proposed bills that would cut off funding for the program, and that could endanger its existence. I have no problem with (in fact, I think we absolutely should be) reviewing our security procedures around the resettlement program to ensure our safety, but that shouldn’t cause the program to stop.   If you care about this issue, I urge you to call your representatives and Senators, and tell them to follow the example of none other than French President Francois Hollande, who has said that his country will accept three times as many refugees as the US plans to admit. While we must fight back against DAESH and do everything necessary to prevent a repeat of the Parisian attacks, we cannot allow the fear reflex to dictate our actions.

French President Francois Hollande
French President Francois Hollande
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