In Sunday’s second presidential debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were questioned about the crisis in Syria: “Isn’t it a lot like the Holocaust,” moderator Martha Raddatz asked, “when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?”
Trump’s meandering response—one where he openly disagreed with his own running mate—didn’t address how he’d help millions of families fleeing devastation. The prospective Commander-in-Chief instead advocated for a “sneak attack,” which, as any Veteran will tell you, isn’t an actual military maneuver. Nor is it a credible way to educate, feed, and clothe entire cities of displaced people.
Trump’s erratic answer was disappointing, but even more concerning, he’s not alone. The sentiment he conveyed—that desperate refugees don’t deserve a helping hand—is shared by many more politicians. Six years since the outbreak of violence in Syria, too many of our leaders have forgotten the lessons of history. Worse, they’re ignoring the advice of our military and intelligence community.
The reality is that the United States cannot afford to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people. While America should not put boots on the ground, it must keep its doors open to Syrian refugees seeking shelter and safety.
Many Americans are wondering if we’re doing enough to stem the suffering in Syria. There are now nearly 5 million Syrian refugees, overwhelming fragile Middle Eastern neighbors like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Worldwide, this means there are more refugees today than any time since World War II. And, on a human level, the destruction is gut-wrenching. Look no further than this chilling video from inside one of the few remaining emergency rooms in Aleppo.
The crisis is mounting, but in Congress and many state capitols, leaders refuse to act. Within the past year, 25 Republican governors vowed to stop any Syrian refugees from entering their states. In Washington, many Republicans in Congress are currently fighting tooth-and-nail to halt all Syrian refugees from earning a U.S. visa.
The Trump campaign is dialing up the dangerous and detached rhetoric. Trump’s son recently tweeted a controversial photo of candy, asking, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” And, in Sunday’s debate, Trump reiterated this offensive line of thinking, falsely saying that neighbors of the San Bernardino terrorists “saw the bombs all over” before the attack, but didn’t report it to the police.
Whether it’s a denigrating comparison to candy or a Congressional bill banning child victims of war, such claims are fueled by the same source: unsubstantiated fear. Many Syrian refugees, their argument goes, might be peaceful people fleeing the ravages of terrorism. But there’s a big chance that some could be sleeper agents—using the guise of a refugee to sneak into the U.S., lurk among us, and attack our communities. And, many politicians say, we can’t afford to take that risk.
This is a bogus argument—one that weakens our national security, amplifies terrorist propaganda, and abandons American values.
First, refugees are subjected to the tightest security checks of any travelers to the United States. They undergo vetting from agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center. Refugees have to get exhaustive medical checks, including biometric eye scans and fingerprinting. Then, every individual is interviewed by professionals from the world’s best intelligence community, where U.S. agents evaluate possible connections to terrorists and prior criminal behavior. (Here’s a White House infographic detailing the entire vetting process).
What’s more, banning Syrian refugees plays directly into ISIS and al-Qaeda’s propaganda that claims that the West is at war against Islam. Instead of strengthening America’s security, it helps extremists recruit new foot soldiers.
Take it from David Petraeus, the former Director of the CIA, who recently wrote, “When Western politicians propose blanket discrimination against Islam, they bolster the terrorists’ propaganda…it is also corrosive to our vital national security interests and, ultimately, to the United States’ success in this war.” No wonder that the Pentagon has also come out against banning refugees, with one defense official saying, “Anything that bolsters ISIL’s narrative and pits the United States against the Muslim faith is certainly not only contrary to our values, but contrary to our national security.”
But most importantly, banning refugees means we’re forgetting the lessons of history. The Holocaust taught us that protecting refugees is our moral obligation. Even if today’s losses are impossible to reverse, it’s no excuse for inaction tomorrow. Our credibility as the world’s lone superpower is on the line. And we must stand up for our principles—lest we invite more despots to kill without consequence.
Millions of Syrian refugees live in constant fear of barrel bombs, sniper fire, and armed extremists. Imposing a religious ban and denigrating their decency only serves radical groups. Instead of slamming our doors, we should heed the advice of our military—and honor the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation, who defended our values in war—by allowing refugees to strengthen the fabric of our society.