In the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last week, many Americans and U.S. politicians are demanding that somebody do something. What they want to be done and why they want it to happen, however, are more difficult questions.
A number of governors and GOP presidential candidates responded this week by recoiling in fear, arguing that our first step should be to take action against Syrian refugees. They want to deny entry to a group of people who, as far as we can tell, had nothing to do with what happened in Paris.
Investigators found a Syrian passport near one of the suicide bombers that they later said was forged. But all the involved parties who have been identified are European nationals, and one German official suggested that the Islamic State, or ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, may be using Syrian passports in a false-flag effort to incite an Islamophobic backlash against refugees.
That would be in line with the Islamic State's broader objective to bring about a "clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West. And whether or not the passport was a deliberate part of that plan, security experts say we're giving the militant group exactly what it wants by turning against Syrian refugees, who are themselves fleeing terrorism and war.
The desire for heightened caution in the wake of a terrorist attack is understandable, but the rhetoric from those who think it's impossible to safely take in 10,000 Syrian refugees, out of the more than 4 million who have left their country, goes beyond a simple call for vigilance.
While discussing the supposed terror threat posed by Syrians -- although not the Christian ones, according to someRepublicans -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) claimed this week that it was time to "wake up and smell the falafel."
"The Statue of Liberty says 'bring us your tired and your weary,'" he said. "It didn't say 'bring us your terrorists and let them come in here and bomb neighborhoods, cafes and concert halls.'"
This sort of broad-brush Islamophobia is intended to shape our view of Syrian refugees as enemies at the gate, as Islamic State militants who have temporarily traded their masks for civilian clothes so they can apply for refugee status in the U.S., get selected, pass a rigorous vetting process that can take up to two years, and finally resettle in the U.S., where they would presumably try to activate their sleeper cell without being caught by domestic surveillance. If the whole idea seems ridiculous, that's because it is. Islamic State operatives would have a far easier time getting someone in with a tourist visa.
But for anyone whobelieves such fearmongering -- and it's clear that many Americans do -- these arguments conjure an image of Syrian refugees as a bunch of radicalized, military-aged Muslim men yearning to take the fight to U.S. soil. And that's just not true. Here's what we know about the Syrians who have left their homes, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Among the people fleeing Syria, it's about a 50-50 split between male and female refugees. Almost 40 percent of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 11, and more than half of them are under age 17. About 22 percent are men between the ages of 18 and 59.
It's true that there's a higher concentration of men among the more than 800,000 refugees who have traveled to Europe, often via dangerous sea crossings into Greece or Italy. Though about 50 percent of all the European-bound refugees are Syrian, these numbers also include many people fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Nigeria and other nations struggling with instability and violence.
Whatever the demographic breakdown of Syrian refugees, it seems that many Americans are so scared or resentful of Muslims that they're missing the basic issue of humanity that lies at the heart of this debate. More than 200,000 Syrians have died during the nation's four-and-a-half year civil war, including tens of thousands of civilians. That's the hell they are desperately trying to escape. That's why they're willing to risk their lives for the relative safety of an overcrowded refugee camp, or the distant chance of a more stable existence in Europe or the U.S.
And if anyone is skittish about the idea of the United States providing a haven to people who used to live in the Middle East, it might interest them to know that just 2 percent of the more than 2,000 Syrian refugees who have so far been admitted into the U.S. are single men of fighting age, according to the State Department.
Here are some of the "dangerous" people we could be letting in:
Syrian refugee Nujeen, 16, waits to be carried from the shoreline to the road after landing on the Greek island of Lesbos with her older sister Nisreen. They fled Aleppo with their parents over two years ago and had been living in Turkey before deciding to seek better medical care for Nujeen in Europe. After a rough crossing that left most of the passengers cold and terrified, Nujeen seemed calm and happy. Speaking fluent English, she described the journey: "I enjoyed it. I have never been on a boat before. It was very beautiful. I didn't know if I was going to live or die, but thanks to God we are here."
Nujeen's resilience captured headlines around the world this year, and earned her a shoutout on HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." It was more than just a mention for Nujeen, however, as Oliver got actors from her favorite American soap opera, "Days of Our Lives," to pay tribute to the teen. Nujeen has since arrived in Germany.
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Hajar, Amira and Nabiha Darbi pose in their new living room in New Jersey. The Darbi family is one of many Syrian refugee families already living in the U.S. Read more about their story here.
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A refugee, using a plastic trash bag to protect himself from the rain, walks through the "New Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants live in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain, on Oct. 21, 2015.
Maaesa Alroustom, center, is kissed by her mother, Suha, as her father, Hussam, back, sits with her brother Wesam in their apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, Sept. 16, 2015. The Alroustoms are refugees from war-stricken Syria.
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Mahmud, 28, and his bride, Firal, 25, both from the Syrian city of Kobane, show their rings as they arrive with other refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on Oct. 8, 2015.
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A elderly Syrian man holds his broken arm, an injury he received during his voyage from Syria, at a refugee reception center on Oct. 23, 2015, in Gevgelija, Macedonia.
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A Syrian child holds a watermelon, one of several distributed near the Akcakale crossing gate between Turkey and Syria at Akcakale in Sanliurfa Province on June 16, 2015.
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A man from the Syrian town of Aleppo poses with his child in front of a mound of life jackets on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat, Oct. 2, 2015.
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Refugees who have just arrived by bus queue in the rain at a refugee transit camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia on Oct. 22, 2015, in Idomeni, Greece.
In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2015, Syrian refugee Ali Shaheen, 62, and his wife, Abeer, 52, who came from the countryside of Damascus, Syria, pose for a picture shortly after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos.
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Refugees from Afghanistan and Syria take selfies after arriving in boats on the shores of Lesbos on Nov. 2, 2015, near Molyvos, Greece.
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Ibrahim Ahmad, wearing an inhaler mask, is seen in a Syrian family's room in the Reyhanli district of Hatay Province in southern Turkey, Oct. 28, 2015.
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A Syrian family with 2-month-old triplets, and their relatives with more babies, wait for transportation after disembarking with other migrants and asylum seekers from two government-chartered ferries at the Greek port of Piraeus, about 7 miles from central Athens, on Oct. 21, 2015.
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A Syrian family is seen inside their room in the Reyhanli district of Hatay Province in southern Turkey on Oct. 28, 2015.
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A refugee from Syria, left, and a Kurdish man from Iraq wait to be registered at the central registration office for refugees in Greven, western Germany, on Sept. 22, 2015.
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Halim Rasim, 6, a Syrian refugee boy who fled Idlib with his family, poses with his pet cat at a tent city in the Akcakale district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, on Sept. 24, 2015.
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Refugees sit inside buses as they are transported to the Brezice refugee camp on Oct. 26, 2015, in Rigonce, Slovenia.
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Syrian refugees sit in the back of a Jordanian army truck as they leave the al-Roqban makeshift camp, on the border with Syria, for the eastern town of Ruwaished, where they will be welcomed and checked by the Jordanian authorities, on Sept. 10, 2015.
In this photo taken Oct. 3, 2015, Syrian refugee Alaaldeen Mohammed, 25, who came from Aleppo, Syria, poses for a picture shortly after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. Mohammed was injured in 2013 in a government bombing that burned his upper body and face.
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