On Syria, Oklahoma and the Refugee in Us All

I've always liked the current mayor of my hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. I've disagreed with some of his policy decisions from time to time, but in my estimation Dewey Bartlett Jr. has been an eminently capable mayor and a steady hand through some rather serious crises in the city I grew up in (like a grand jury investigation that found the Sheriff's Department to be rife with corruption). As it happens, Dewey is also a personal friend and I know him to be a good and decent man. All of which makes his public pronouncement about Syrian refugees all the more disheartening.

In the days after terrorist attacks in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris the world was as stunned as it was saddened. The scale and cruelty of the attacks understandably shocked us. Sadly, it seems the terrorists have also succeeded in terrorizing us. Listening to the litany of governors--now at least 31--loudly pronouncing that they will do all they can to prevent the settlement in their states of people fleeing the chaos of Syria, it's hard to come to any conclusion but that the terrorists have left us terrified.

I don't doubt that many of the officials who've made such pronouncements are earnestly concerned about the welfare of their citizens. The possibility that one of the Paris attackers or their co-conspirators may have followed the trail of migrants fleeing violence in Syria raises urgent questions about the safety of communities that accept Syrian refugees--that fact is undeniable, written in blood in the streets of Paris last week. Measures should be taken to prevent dangerous people from finding a home in the U.S., but the swift, deliberate hand with which some of our leaders have taken that legitimate concern and swept aside the thousands of desperate families clawing for safety amid terrible violence leaves one wondering where our compassion has gone.

A few of the swift attempts to reject refugees are particularly rich, like that of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from Punjab, an Indian state that borders Pakistan and has seen more than its share of violence and sectarian tragedy within living memory. Jindal presides over a state that was first settled almost entirely by refugees and deportees: Cajuns fleeing expulsion by the British in Canada, French orphans, prostitutes and convicts rounded up by the thousands and shipped to the colony of Louisiana, and refugees fleeing the violence of the Haitian Revolution.

When the mayor of my hometown commented publicly on Facebook that he'd written a letter to President Obama urging him not to allow Syrian refugees into the United States and promising to do what he could to prevent their settlement in Tulsa, the irony was hard to miss. Most of us who were born in Oklahoma come from families that did not originate there, whether our ancestors were Europeans who fled their own desperate situations to seek a better life in middle America or Native American refugees from east of the Mississippi expelled from their own homelands by the United States nearly two centuries ago. Many African Americans in the state arrived after fleeing desperate situations in the Deep South. The list goes on.

But what's more, it wasn't so long ago that we Okies were refugees in our own country. Amid the man-made natural disaster that was the Dust Bowl, thousands of desperate people picked up what they could carry and fled Oklahoma. Some of them went to places like California and stayed. Some came back to Oklahoma--and one imagines some of their progeny are Mayor Bartlett's own constituents.

It's tempting to argue that Oklahomans ought to be especially sensitive to the plight of desperate people fleeing catastrophe at home but the truth is that all Americans have tragedy in our history. Native Americans today descend from people who had tragedy brought to their homeland. African Americans today descend from people who, kidnapped from their homeland, suffered and struggled under the tragedy of slavery for centuries. Latino Americans, Asian Americans and European Americans descend from people who fled their own homelands for a host of tragedies: religious persecution, famine, war and economic hopelessness.

I understand why my hometown mayor and other leaders of communities across America are frightened. There are serious concerns that must be met with well-considered, even-handed refugee resettlement policies. But, "These problems should not be permitted to obscure the larger issue of whether the United States is prepared to act with the same generosity and goodwill we have always shown toward those seeking freedom from oppression. To do less would be to underestimate the strength and character of the American people and to dishonor the highest traditions of our nation."

That quotation comes from a letter signed by a handful of U.S. Senators in 1975 amid objections to the resettlement in the United States of Vietnamese refugees as that war came to a violent end. One of the signatories was Sen. Dewey F. Bartlett, the mayor of Tulsa's father.

Mayor Bartlett, Gov. Jindal, and other leaders around the United States, I urge you to appeal not to our lowest inclinations but our highest. Not all of your constituents are willing to so easily sacrifice compassion in the face of terror. Not all of us are willing to be terrorized.

Amid this global humanitarian crisis we ask you for leadership, not fear. We are a nation of refugees, a people shaped by desperation. It's understandable if we've forgotten what desperation feels like. But it will be unforgivable if we forget how to extend compassion--even in the face of terror--to those who haven't.