WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2015 – The terrorist attacks in Paris have elicited sharp and predictable responses in Europe and America.
Nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe have polled well since the refugee crisis began, and while it is too soon to measure the impact of the terrorist attacks on voters, no one doubts that their position has improved. They’d already moved into first or second place in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries.
The Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, surpassed the ruling Social Democrats as Sweden’s most popular party in August, and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was the biggest winner in September’s elections.
With other anti-immigrant parties, the SVP has more than half the seats in Switzerland’s lower house of parliament, the National Council.
France’s National Front is now considered a mainstream party, the more blatant anti-Semitic elements purged by party leader Marine Le Pen. It won 25 percent of the vote in this year’s local elections, and it remains anti-immigrant. In Hungary, the Jobbik party – neo-fascists who call for ethnic purity in Hungary – is the third largest party in Parliament. It has pushed the ruling right-wing Fidesz party even further to the right.
French President Hollande has requested a three-month extension of emergency powers and security forces are on heightened alert. Free movement across European borders is being slowed. Europe is more security conscious.
But at the same time, the French government has reaffirmed its intent to accept more Syrian refugees. Germany’s Angela Merkel is unmoved by the attacks, and refugees still find official welcome in Europe.
The political response in the United States has been quick and sharp. Half the governors in the U.S. have announced that their states will no longer accept Syrian refugees. That rejection is largely symbolic, since once the federal government permits refugees to enter the U.S., the states have no power to keep them out. The governors can make it more difficult to relocate to their states by blocking funds that provide services to refugees, but they can’t stop the free movement of people between states.
Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump, who campaigns strongly to control immigration into the U.S., has seen his poll numbers improve in the last week. He is once again the undisputed leader of the GOP pack.
The reason for anti-immigrant, anti-refugee strength in Europe and the U.S. is clear: Voters are afraid. Is that fear rational? Yes.
Critics of President Obama’s plans to resettle more Syrian refugees in the U.S. worry that Daesh, the self-styled “Islamic State,” will place operatives among the refugees. Daesh has announced that it intends to do just that, and there is no doubt that it can do it. Obama’s mockery of conservative fear of “widows and orphans” ignores the fact that many of the refugees are young men. Daesh has demonstrated that women know how to wear a suicide vest, too.
Opponents of settling Syrian refugees in the U.S. readily admit that most of them are bona fide refugees, peaceful and harmless. It is the unknown and unpredictable number of terrorists among them who pose a threat. It takes only a few to wreak devastation in a soft-target-rich country like the U.S.
It is entirely rational to be afraid of refugees when we don’t know who among them poses a threat. It is also, unfortunately, entirely rational to be afraid of young black men, young white men, hitchhikers and college students.
It is fashionable on college campuses to observe that any man can be a rapist. No woman can be alone with a man and be fully confident that he won’t rape her. Likewise, every parent knows that single men steal and rape children, and day-care workers occasionally engage in satanic rites involving sexual abuse of toddlers.
University grad students occasionally shoot up movie theaters. The idea that Syrian Daesh terrorists might join them caused conservative pundit Erick Erickson to express relief that he won’t be attending the opening night of “Star Wars.”
Liberals are afraid of white men with guns and white men with penises, and with good reason: They occasionally use them against unarmed civilians. Conservatives are afraid of the militarized police, but as long as they’re packing heat, they’re not afraid of anyone else at the theater. Liberals are afraid of Christians and veterans; conservatives are afraid of gays and unshaved women. Parents are afraid of strangers, drivers are afraid of hitchhikers, and Bernie Sanders is afraid of bankers.
Everyone is afraid of someone, and with good reason: Everyone is a potential threat. Friends and family can be dangerous, but strangers are an unknown danger, and if we can’t accurately gauge a threat, we often treat it as a worst-case possibility.
Not knowing which Japanese-Americans were dangerous in WWII, the Roosevelt administration sensibly interned them all. Not knowing how AIDS was spread, parents sensibly demanded that kids with AIDS be banished to isolation. Not knowing which books, speeches or Halloween costumes will cause PTSD, college kids sensibly want all speech screened and any possibly painful speech or expression banished from campus.
The most rational way to live is to treat every stranger as a threat, and the more strange the stranger – the more foreign, the more exotic, the more not-like-me – the more dangerous he is. The most rational way to live is in total lockdown, with every threat carefully screened and contained.
Rationality in this case presupposes that security is the most important value in our society. The fear and pre-emptive action against threats are rational when we see life primarily in terms of threat and threat response.
Yet from Republican governors, this is peculiar. A competing value to security is liberty. Conservatives often bristle at anything that infringes on liberty: liberty to carry a gun, liberty to move freely; liberty to say what you want; liberty from the TSA, DEA, NSA, and the militarized police. Yet on the matter of Syrian refugees, their primary concern is security.
If our goal is to protect America, we should be careful to define what we mean by “America.” Is America property, money and all the stuff that money can buy? Is America a way of life? Is America a set of principles and ideals?
America is all these things, and more. But one thing America has never imagined itself to be is fearful. And yet, here we are, liberals and conservatives alike, consumed by fear. If this is reason, perhaps it is time to abandon reason and embrace hope. We might enjoy life more if we irrationally, insanely treat the people around us as generally well-intentioned adults, potential friends rather than occult enemies.
Jesus said in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”
It is no violation of liberty or reason to screen and be watchful of people you invite into your home. Or as President Reagan liked to say, “trust, but verify.” Trust we must, understanding that trust, like love, is a dangerous and terrifying road.
The rewards, however, can be enormous and worth the calculated risk. Not least among them are a life not dominated by fear and a nation united, not balkanized.