“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.