Standing up to Our Fears in the Face of Extremism

The One World Trade Center spire is lit blue, white and red after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the lighting in honor
The One World Trade Center spire is lit blue, white and red after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the lighting in honor of dozens killed in the Paris attacks Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, in New York. French officials say several dozen people have been killed in shootings and explosions at a theater, restaurant and elsewhere in Paris. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

It has been hard to read that in recent days the French people feel like they are on their own. As New Yorkers, our hearts continue to break at the sites and stories of the victims of the shootings and bombings in Paris. In their choice of targets--a restaurant, a concert hall, a stadium and the city streets, the men and women who carried out these brutal killings have touched the raw nerve of everyday people going about their daily lives.

In response to the killings, we are hearing the drumbeat of reactionary rhetoric from those willing to surrender more power to the surveillance state. "More power to the police," "scour every mosque," "keep the refugees out" and "it's Edward Snowden's fault," are heard all over the airwaves--from pundits, governors, members of Congress and Presidential candidates alike.

These dismal, cowardly responses by our nation's leadership are reverberations of precisely what the perpetrators of the Paris attacks have sought: to trigger terror in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. A better response to those who employ violence and kill innocent people, justifying it with twisted interpretations of the Islamic faith, would be to uphold our constitutional protections, and our belief in pluralism and grassroots democracy. It's a time to affirm our right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. We are not a nation that believes in scapegoating people for fear of where they came from or what god they worship. And we are at our best as a country when we open our doors and build on the legacy of refugees and immigrants finding a safe haven and adding color to the pluralistic fabric that makes us great. After all, given the experience of 9/11, do we honestly believe that Islamic or any other fundamentalist extremists need a stream of desperate migrants entering the country after a two year vetting process to get a killer into the U.S.?

At North Star Fund, we saw first hand what happened to the innocent people who got caught up in the frenzy of detentions and deportations after immigration reform was passed in the 1990s, followed by the Patriot Act after 9/11. Fear is an appropriate response to the attacks in Paris. However, it is not right to let that fear push us to sacrifice our commitment to putting forth decisive, democratically crafted, and constitutionally accountable responses.

Our values command us to organize with all communities, not target them with surveillance that makes innocent people afraid to speak up. That kind of fear mongering is perpetrated by violent extremists, and that's not us. One of the hardest stories to hear from last week was also one of the most revealing. It is the story of two women who lived in the Belgian neighborhoods with the extremists who carried out these attacks. Though the women felt they recognized one of the killers from images flashed across their TV screens, they were too afraid to go to the police and report what they had seen. That's a double conundrum of fear and terror; first inflicted by the those who terrorize innocent people, but also of the state who the women felt they could not trust to protect them.

If we as New Yorkers truly want to stand up to those who twist ideology and employ the murder of innocents to promote their agenda, then we must stand up for the alternative: peaceful coexistence and respect for all communities. This doesn't mean we become "soft" or negligent in protecting everyone in our city and country. Rather, it means that while we pursue these protections, we also maintain a fierce commitment to uphold our most sacred constitutional rights and protections. We must cling tight to the values of pluralistic democracy, and move with compassion to address the victims of senseless violence. We can be strong, and we can continue to create a more just, peaceful, and loving society. As former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias presciently said, ""It is essential that justice be done; it is equally vital that justice not be confused with revenge, for the two are wholly different."