What the Politics of Fear Cost Us

20 Nov 2015

What the Politics of Fear Cost Us

There are heated opinions on whether America should be welcoming Syrian refugees to our shores after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut last week. Yet, much as we might dread the unknown, part of what it means to be an American is that we rise above the fearful rhetoric and xenophobia now taking hold with a vast number of Republican presidential candidates, and in Congress (where 46 Democrats had this fear on display as well). As Hillary Clinton pointed out, a careful vetting process is needed and must take place, but we should open our hearts to Syrian refugees, who are not terrorists and have themselves been victimized.

Conservative pundit S.E. Cupp penned a surprising article making the case for us allowing Syrian refugees to resettle here. She states that there can be no better advertisement for the positives in our culture than to show compassion. This act in itself leaves little room for the seductions of radicalization to take hold. Imagine the alternative. Ms. Cupp states:

“How Syrian refugees got ensnared in the domestic politics of US immigration policy and the international politics of national security is a longer conversation. But as nearly half of US governors vow to keep their borders closed to the victims of a brutal war we’ve done little to staunch, there’s an important case to be made that accepting Syrian refugees isn’t just the moral thing to do, but the best way to prevent the future spread of terrorism.”

The moral grounds for accepting refugees hinge on two principles: One, American exceptionalism demands that we lead where others have neither the will nor the courage. And two, we are morally obligated to defend Western values of democracy, freedom and equality against Islamist ideologies that would threaten them. ISIS’s attacks in Paris were attacks on our values. Closing our borders is surrendering those values to the enemy.

(It’s also, it pains me to point out, the height of hypocrisy for Republicans who have rightly called for more military intervention to stomp out ISIS in Syria to simultaneously refuse to take on the consequences of that action, namely the displacement of millions of Syrians.)

But the refugee crisis is also an important opportunity to turn the tide in the war on terror. For one, these are four million people who may get their first taste of what a free, pluralistic society looks like.”

Isn’t the war against terrorism a war to win hearts and minds, too? And if we give in to fear, don’t the terrorists win? What a powerful image to see the people of Paris flooding the streets and cafes after these horrid attacks to say “we are not afraid.”

In contrast, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump made the statement that all Muslims should be required to carry I.D. cards. This was horrifying, given that my dad was Jewish and a holocaust survivor. Before his capture later in 1943, he likewise was asked to leave the country where he resided safely.

Other Republican frontrunner Ben Carson’s “mad dog” analogy, as reported by MSNBC, likewise caters to fear rather than sense:

“If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably going to put your children out of the way,” he said during remarks in Mobile, Alabama. “[It] doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs, by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re putting your intellect into motion and you’re thinking ‘How do I protect my children? At the same time, I love dogs and I’m gonna call the humane society and hopefully they can come take this dog away and create a safe environment once again.'”

Dr. Carson’s words do not telegraph a fitness to lead as he is unthinking about the dangerous message he puts forth about those who are “other”. Whatever his context, the takeaway will be that “Syrians = mad dogs.” How could he be trusted or respected to work with  other nations or leaders who wonder, “does he think I’m a mad dog, too?”

This is a moment for us to examine carefully the rhetoric we are being fed and where it will lead.

Do I want careful vetting of any foreign person, regardless of where they are from? Yes. But I also want to live in a country that upholds the ideals we say we stand for.


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