Here we go again.
Though we are a nation of immigrants, we periodically turn xenophobic.
Sixty-three years ago, shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led us to declare war on Japan, our government sent more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps--simply because their ancestry made them seem dangerous.
In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act--signed by President Ronald Reagan-- apologized for the internment, recognized that it had been prompted by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership," and authorized reparations that eventually came to more than 1.6 billion dollars.
Though we haven't yet started interning any American Muslims, we are back in the business of xenophobic hysteria. Now that the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks of last Friday night, and now that we know one of the attackers reportedly posed as a Syrian refugee, many of our leaders consider all Syrian refugees dangerous.
In particular, President Obama's plan to welcome 10,000 of them in the coming year is anything but welcome to Republican leaders. Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, says that unless Paul Ryan blocks the president's plan, he should resign his new House speakership. Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, says he would not admit any refugees--not even orphans under the age of 5--because he "does not trust this administration to effectively vet" them. Likewise, Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz say that since no Muslim refugee can be safely screened, we should allow only Christians to enter this country.
Let us then remember what was done on April 19, 1995 by a man who was probably raised a Christian if he was raised in any religion at all. He was not a Muslim but one of our own--an American of Irish descent. In the single worst act of homegrown terrorism ever committed on American soil, Timothy McVeigh and a Michigan-farm-raised boy named Terry Nichols (perhaps a fellow Christian?) blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring more than 600--far more than were killed and injured in Paris. As the great-grandson of an Irish refugee who came to these shores in flight from the great famine of the late 1840s, I am grateful that McVeigh's act never turned the American public against people like me--even though it occurred after almost 30 years of murderous violence by the Irish Republican Army, which the UK long considered a terrorist organization.
President Obama has reminded us that every refugee seeking asylum in this country must undergo the most rigorous screening possible. So far from being terrorists, the Muslim refugees now streaming into Europe are fleeing terrorism, desperately seeking safety for themselves and their children. But many Americans see them only as threats to our country. A longtime friend of mine has just written to say that we must consider all Muslim refugees potential terrorists until proven otherwise.
Try to imagine what this would mean. If you were desperate to find a safe place for yourself and your family but were also presumed guilty of terrorist intent, how would you disprove the presumption? Could you do anything more than claim you had never had anything to do with a terrorist or a terrorist plot? And would that be considered proof? If not, how would you prove your claims? Furnish a complete file of everything you've ever read or written, including all your correspondence and emails, plus a record of every conversation you've ever had--or overheard--in your whole life?
We cannot fight ISIS effectively by setting impossible conditions for the admission of Muslim refugees. But ISIS can be hit directly, which is happening right now. Up to this point, Russian planes flying over Syria have been skirting ISIS sites in order to hit rebels fighting the regime of Syria's President Bashar al Assad. But now that Russia knows who blew up its plane as well as who attacked Paris, French and Russian planes are both targeting ISIS sites. Horrific as they have been, the ISIS attacks have finally united Russia and the Western allies against their common foe.
Let us also recognize that Muslim leaders around the world have condemned the Paris attacks as an affront to Islam itself as well as to Western civilization.
In Washington, DC on Saturday, the US Council of Muslim Organizations gathered to denounce the attacks and consider how the American Muslim community should respond to them. In Britain, Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council (representing over 500 organizations including mosques, schools and charities), called the killings "horrific and abhorrent." With prayers "for the families of those killed and injured and for the people of France, our neighbours," he pointedly added: "This attack is being claimed by the group calling themselves 'Islamic State'. There is nothing Islamic about such people and their actions are evil, and outside the boundaries set by our faith."
In light of such statements, it is any more reasonable to think of all Muslim refugees as potential terrorists than it is to think the same of all Irish Americans like me? The overwhelming majority of the 6.67 million Muslims living in this country respect and obey our laws. According to the FBI, only 6% of terrorist attacks on American soil between 1980 and 2005 were perpetrated by Muslims. This makes them slightly less dangerous than Jewish extremists (responsible for 7% of such attacks) and far less dangerous than extreme left wingers (24%) or Latinos (42%). Why then don't we stigmatize all Jews, all left wingers, and all Latinos--starting with Senator Marco Rubio-- as potential terrorists? Why must we demonize only Muslims?
The 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Obama plans to admit next year are a tiny fraction of the more than four million men, women, and children who have fled Syria since the spring of 2011, when its civil war broke out. Why can't we be decent enough, compassionate enough, and yes--American enough-- to welcome them?