In France, they call the loss of 129 lives to gunfire a national tragedy. Around here, such a toll is just known as any Friday night. Indeed, on a typical day in our fair land, some 297 men, women and children get shot. But fear not, this is not a blog about guns – it’s about fear, risk and principles.
The French attack does seem to have touched our national consciousness deeply. Much more so than domestic rampages in Charleston, Umpqua, Isla Vista, Fort Hood, Oakland, Tucson, Newtown, Aurora, Binghamton, Blacksburg, Killeen, Jacksonville, or San Francisco. How many of those and other mass shooting tragedies do you recall?
The evidence of national dread is abundant in the apoplexies of GOP Presidential candidates’ attempts to out-tough each other, and the House of Representatives stampede to raise the national drawbridge against a presumed invasion by Syrian infants and infidels, all sporting suicide vests. It’s not one of our prouder national moments, yet.
Most of the current vitriol is directed at Syrians, who have been in the forefront of-late as their horrific national agony exacts a devastating toll on that population. It’s a complex and unfamiliar fight-to-the-death, complete with a brutally repressive minority government, various opposition factions warring against it and each other, with another force of bloodthirsty zealots seeking every advantage. And that’s before you factor-in the proxy powers of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US and UK, and now, France. Over five million Syrian souls have abandoned their homes and lives, and risked the perils of a chaotic mass migration; many have been further victimized, and not-a-few have succumbed to those hazards.
Neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, to their everlasting credit, have taken-in the vast majority of those refuge seekers – numbers are imprecise, but they are well-north of four million. Some are on their way to other destinations, after being “vetted” by receiving governments in Europe and elsewhere. That said, the predominant media image is of ragged lines of displaced persons, trudging onward toward – where?
Responses to that question seem to animate the current American disquiet. The noisiest of those are variations on the theme of “anywhere but here.” It’s an odd and fearful answer from inhabitants of geography that was foreign to any of our species for eons, and to most of the dominant culture until the most recent century-or-few. It’s also ludicrous in light of the predominance of home-grown terror referred-to above.
It may be worthwhile here to step back and consider how people arrive on these shores, and in what numbers. 34.4 million travelers visited the United States in 2014, excluding persons from neighboring Canada and Mexico (it was 74.8M with them). Included in those numbers are 1.2 million people from the Middle East, last year. We are hardly hermetically sealed-off from the rest of the globe, now or ever.
If we look at refuge seekers as a subgroup, the US admitted about 70,000 last year, including 12,500 Iraqis, 9,000 Somalis, 3,500 Iranians and almost 2,000 Syrians. According to the Homeland Security Office (DHS) that processes such asylum requests, more than 3 million refugees have been resettled in the US since 1970 (including thousands of Vietnamese boat people and the Cuban/Mariel boat lift), utterly without incident.
A joint letter from the bi-partisan former DHS chiefs under Presidents Obama and Bush2 states that the process takes up to two years, and “requires biographic and biometric reviews from DHS, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the State Department and the Defense Department; in person interviews; and a final interview at the border.” Both Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Chertoff believe it is adequate.
Now, does any of this mean that the US should let down the guard, and fling wide its gates?
Obviously not, and no one is suggesting anything of that sort. The point is that despite the persistent press images of rag-tag columns of refugees, the US will not be scooping up random Syrians and sprinkling them across the landscape. It’s a process; it’s been happening for many, many years; it’s happening now, and there just isn’t any empirical evidence of impending disaster as it proceeds into the future. Indeed, why would any young terrorist out to make a name go through that arduous process, when there are easier alternatives?
But if the facts to-date don’t allow us to mistake acorns for pieces of the sky, then how might we better approach this kind of issue? You’ll be shocked to learn that I have a few perspectives to offer.
First, one might generally take heart that the modern world is progressively, remarkably safer than it’s ever been, in terms of objective risks to well-being. That said, no risk is ever zero. We do have to accept that the modern, inter-connected world does have its malcontents, and that weaponry innovations make those few folks dangerous. Occasionally, some fatherless individuals will break through and wreak a bit of havoc. It will be individually tragic, but, frankly, not as collectively significant as a war, or natural disaster – or the ongoing slaughter of gun violence.
Should people of goodwill and their governments therefore be vigilant? Absolutely, and always. And they/we are, recognizing that any human system is imperfect. Perfection, in the form of a risk-free existence has simply never been an option - on the road, at work, or even in schools or places of worship, as we’ve seen.
How should the US approach the Syrian refugees? They should be institutionally vetted (and are), and individually embraced (let’s hope). Of course, with twice as many municipalities as Syrian refugees, they may be difficult to find. The wonderful EireAnn Dolan has offered one kind gesture – and I am told that there are stirrings in various religious traditions to provide caring assistance akin to that provided by the Good Samaritan in Christ’s parable. There’s just nothing that dismantles suspicion like individualizing it, through contact.
Finally, we might consider what America’s best angels stand-for, in terms of acceptance and inclusion, and be guided thereby. The Statue of Liberty’s invocation well-states the case. Tests of national principles do not come when it’s easy or convenient. Rather, they come when they come, and how we respond defines our true measure of devotion to them. America’s performance is judged by history.
Some of our collective worst chapters in that history arose out of situations where the national character was tested and failed to measure-up. There are other examples, but the Japanese-American internments spring immediately to mind. This response could be of that ilk, or it could provide a prouder moment – one that not coincidentally rebukes the fulminations of foreign terrorists against this country, its ideals and its citizens.
What’s it going to be? We have it in our power to decide.