Who's afraid of Syrian refugees?

“Cowardly” is the word that jumps to mind when reading about calls for this country to stop accepting Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris bombings. Cowardice is a word frequently misused, in every arena of life but especially in politics, where it most often occurs. Politicians often denounce terrorists as cowardly, as French President Francois Hollande did when he spoke of the recent Paris attacks as “a cowardly act of war carried out by ISIS barbarians,” or President George Bush when he spoke of the Sept. 11 attacks as “cowardly acts.”

Yet “cowardly” is the one thing terrorists are not. Terrorists are, clearly, murderous. Any number of other negative adjectives may also fairly be ascribed to them, ranging from thoughtless, wrong-headed, deluded and fanatical to ruthless, unscrupulous and conscienceless. But terrorism is a high-risk business. Anybody who becomes a terrorist is not playing it safe.


Playing it safe is what many Americans seem to see as of paramount value today. Thus the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to impose new screening procedures on refugees coming to the United States from Syria. This despite the fact that refugees resettled here are very thoroughly vetted before they arrive in a process that can last years. Anybody wanting to come to this country to commit terrorism would find it far easier to enter on a tourist or student visa than as a refugee.

Rushing in with a solution to a problem that isn’t one, the House chose to stoke public fear and to appear to allay it at one and the same time. Since the Paris attacks, other U.S. elected officials or candidates for office have suggested closing mosques or creating a database to track Muslims in the United States. Hysteria and bigotry are alive and well.

Singling out a group of people for special scrutiny solely on the basis of their nationality or religion is unwarranted and likely to be counterproductive as well. And impeding the entry of Syrian refugees to this country because of an exaggerated fear of terrorism seems unconscionable given the refugees’ dire situation. But the world seems divided between the comfortable and the desperate. In one corner of the world, the United States and the West, safe people want to play it safer, many caught up in a fantasy that a perfectly secure world can be created. In another corner, thousands of terrorized victims of war are fleeing Syria and Iraq with little more than the clothes on their back.

Unlike those driven into exile, Americans are blessed by peace and security here at home. Yet our own good fortune seems to have made us not generous and confident but anxious and apprehensive. I don’t doubt that under the right circumstances Americans would show their mettle, but the unreasoning fear reflected in proposals to ban refugees from certain states or register Muslims and in any number of policies instituted since Sept. 11, 2001, makes it hard to see the country as the home of the brave and the land of the free.  Maybe we never were, but it was an aspiration. Now I’m not sure that it’s even that.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Charles Erlinger
3 years ago
Framing the security problem we are wrestling with as a problem of adjective or adverb selection (cowardly or courageous act) is not substantive but it is interesting. If a cowardly act is one to which the recipient is not expected to have the ability to respond or retaliate, then both the attack on innocents in a soft target setting and the denial of refuge to refugees are cowardly acts. Somewhat more to the point, in my opinion, is the framework of rational or irrational acts. If the policy objective of the attackers is the establishment, as claimed, of a world-wide caliphate, then the chosen strategy of world-wide terror seems the least likely strategy to produce the desired policy objective. Similarly, if the objective of the recent legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is as stated, to provide a "risk-based" certification that applicants for asylum are not threats to our security, then what is being enshrined in legislation is a mathematical impossibility. Risk is a very well understood concept in mathematical statistics which incorporates the idea of the probability of occurrence of specific outcomes. The combining in the legislation of the concept of no threat (zero probability, that is, mathematically impossible) with the idea of an outcome other than no threat is contradictory. Once the objective of no threat is made law, the concept of risk is made irrelevant. But achieving an outcome by following the law in which the designated government officials would certify that a refugee is no threat with mathematical certitude (probability of one, or 100 percent) is not possible, either. A rational government official would certify no one. Therefore, either the law would be irrational or, as is more likely, the objective of the law would be to certify no one, in which case the law would be perfectly rational.
ed gleason
3 years ago
The better math statistics is 20 million European tourists un-vetted will come to the USA in 2016.and almost all Paris attackers would have had passports to come here un-vetted.. The House majority are not only cowardly they are mathematically stupid..
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
Obama's hypocrisy on this issue seems to know no limits. From Walter Russel Mead, who voted for Obama
For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House. In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today—a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.
http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/11/17/president-obamas-cynical-refugee-ploy/ There are a lot of key points that Mead makes but another one is
If President Obama really had the superior moral insight and wisdom that he believes makes him so much more humane and far-seeing than the ignorant rednecks who keep on opposing him, he would have approached the refugee issue with less arrogance and more self-awareness. It is not given to the sons (or even to the daughters) of mortals to be right about everything all the time; Presidents make mistakes, even in the Middle East. A little humility, a little acknowledgement of responsibility, a little self-reflection could go a long way.
This faux superior moral attitude seems to be present in a lot of the authors on this site as well.
ed gleason
3 years ago
@ Cosgrove.. for what end do you .post hateful talk from who knows who .... Let hear your vitriol in your own words.
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
Thank you for your kind words. It is always nice to have one's opinions validated as right on.
Gabriel Marcella
3 years ago
Not too many people will respond positively by accusing them of being cowards, or worse yet, stupid. Please don't offend them with gratuitous insults. The appeal should be to humanitarian needs.The American people have historically been generous to the huddled masses and dispossessed of all nations of the world. As to the bi-partisan paranoia about terrorists slipping through with the refugees, why would any terrorist subject himself to the intense scrutiny of a screening process that involves many agencies of the US government, such as intelligence and military? The fear is a win for the terrorists.
Tim O'Leary
3 years ago
Was the Obama administration cowardly when it instituted a 6-month pause in Iraqi refugee processing after it was found in 2011 that terrorists had penetrated through these channels? Or was it more cowardly for Obama to leave too early from Iraq, or fail to do anything to protect the Syrians in their own land when they were being bombed with chemical weapons. Is it cowardly for Obama to forswear ground troops in every speech after each ISIS atrocity? Or is the whole foreign policy of the last 8 years cowardly or stupid or whatever? Perhaps, there is a difference of opinion in policy that is not best described as cowardly or stupid? When it comes to risk tolerance, there are many more phobias on the left that are way out of proportion to the actual risk, such as fears of genetically modified food, fracking, the keystone pipeline, passive smoking (but not marijuana smoke), meat in general, pro-lifers, evangelicals, hunters, blacklivesmatters, complaining college students, and all sorts of speech, etc. Is the whole hysteria around global warming due to cowardice - fear to adapt to a 3 foot increase in the sea level? I doubt it would sit well to put these concerns all down to cowardice? I do think all the Democratic candidates seem afraid of blacklivesmatters (no matter how disruptive they are at their rallies). It is very arrogant (as well as completely wrong) to call the majority of Americans cowards because of their loss of confidence in the Obama administration to vet influxes of refugee immigrants when it is so lax or inept at preventing illegal immigration. They couldn't even set up a working website in time for the launch of Obamacare. Americans should know that Hillary Clinton has said she will greatly expand the number of "refugees" if she become president (she recently advocated increasing it to 65,000).


The latest from america

“This generation” of religious leaders whom Jesus takes to task in today’s Gospel resist the new and different.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 13, 2018
Archbishop García-Siller keynoted “The Church in America: A Conversation on Immigration,” an event co-sponsored by America Media and the Mexican American Catholic College. Norma Pimentel, M.J., executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and Sean Carroll, S.J., executive
J.D. Long-GarcíaDecember 13, 2018
Photo of the Velvet Underground and Nico (Cornell University - Division of Rare Manuscript Collections)
In a new exhibit, we are treated to a kind of shrine to the band’s origins.
Rob Weinert-KendtDecember 13, 2018
I was standing in the dumpster looking for food when I was overwhelmed by the thought that I am feeding my family garbage.
Judy Ann EichstedtDecember 13, 2018