Reports that at least one of the killers in Paris came to Europe under the guise of fleeing war in Syria have sparked a huge response here in the U.S. More than two dozen governors, including Georgia’s Nathan Deal, have issued statements saying their states won’t accept Syrian refugees, although it’s questionable at best that they have the legal authority to do so. Congress is being urged to withhold funding for the resettlement of 10,000 refugees the Obama administration agreed to bring here. At the same time, President Obama is leading the way in branding those who oppose allowing refugees in, or who have suggested giving priority to Syrian Christians, as anti-American xenophobes.
In other words, it’s our usual collective response to a difficult problem, which explains a lot about why we have so many difficult problems.
Since Vietnam, the American public has seemed convinced that one key to winning a war is winning “hearts and minds” (never mind that our track record of winning wars in the era beginning with Vietnam has been far spottier than our record before Vietnam). Now on the home front, Americans seem determined to use either their hearts or their minds, but not both.
It is unquestionably heart-breaking to read the reports of real refugees from Syria. That war, with the Assad regime’s use of not only chemical weapons but such “conventional” weapons as shrapnel-filled barrels dropped and exploded over villages, has been brutal in a way we cannot really fathom. Then there are the atrocities being committed by ISIS: beheadings, rapes, forced conversions, mass killings. We know all these things are true, and I know of no one who disputes that there are genuine reasons for Syrians to flee their homeland.
At the same time, there have been warnings from the beginning — not only from ranting xenophobes — that such a sudden, vast migration offered an opportunity for ISIS to send fighters into Europe and North America undetected. Imagine there is even one terrorist for every 10,000 real refugees, just 1 percent of 1 percent of the human flood hitting our shores. There are millions of Syrians who have been displaced during the war, many of whom have left the country. Hundreds of thousands of them are seeking asylum in Europe; Germany alone said at one point it would accept as many as half a million per year for several years. Combine those possible numbers with what we know to be a significant number of homegrown terrorists in the West, many of whom have fought and/or trained with ISIS in Syria or Iraq, and the potential for terrorist attacks like the one in Paris is practically unlimited. Nor is it surprising that Americans doubt their government’s competence in screening refugees, given the fact the Boston bombers were also refugees — not to mention our government’s apparent incompetence at setting an effective strategy for dealing with Syria in the first place.
So the answer to this refugee crisis requires our hearts and our minds. It also requires some cooling of the rhetoric. That’s especially true for President Obama, who should have learned over the past seven years that vilifying his domestic opposition has never led to good results. He might acknowledge that, while there should be no “religious test” for refugee status in a pluralistic country such as ours, there is an argument that Syrian Christians should be considered for priority in the same way that European Jews seeking refuge should have been greater priority in the 1930s. It’s not that ISIS is less apt to kill their fellow Muslims, but that its leaders seem to put a premium on wiping out Christianity in the territory under their control — much as Hitler was a menace to all but was particularly intent on eliminating Jews.
A country as large and generous as ours — charities serving Syrian refugees have reported huge upticks in giving, so let’s not accuse Americans of being disinclined to help — there ought to be a solution that balances charity with prudence. I’m no expert, but here’s a thought: Perhaps we could add an interim resettlement step that gets those seeking refugee status inside the U.S. but in a separated, more controlled environment that gives us more time to confirm their identities (so many of them have lost their paperwork trying to escape) and weed out those who might be seeking to harm us. If that sounds like a reservation or internment camp, consider that unlike the American Indians or Japanese-Americans, these refugees weren’t already here when this debate began. They are coming to us as unknowns, and any threat is hidden in their ranks. We can treat them humanely even while keeping them separate long enough to maintain security — both for ourselves and for those refugees who eventually move on to live among us in a more integrated way.
If there are better ideas, I’m all ears. But the all-or-nothing approaches suggested by our rhetoric don’t live up to any of our responsibilities as a nation.