The sirens had barely died down in Paris when U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., was calling to block Syrian refugees into the United States. Zinke, known for his distinguished service on the battlefield, has yet to show similar courage in politics.
The call was quickly answered by the U.S. House, an organization that can’t normally be relied upon to pay for toilet tissue in Capitol restrooms. Less than a week after the attacks, the House passed a bill to make it tougher for Syrian refugees to enter the United States.
The bill had bipartisan support. Republicans voted for it because they are afraid of terrorists. Democrats voted for it because they are afraid of voters.
Governors around the country, nearly all of them Republicans, vowed to keep Syrian refugees out. Gov. Robert Bentley, R-Ala., said, “I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people.”
By way of perspective, 852 people in Alabama died in traffic wrecks in 2013. In 2010, 782 people in Alabama were killed by gunfire, the fourth-highest gun fatality rate in the nation.
That same year, eight U.S. civilians worldwide were killed by acts of terrorism. More than three times as many died from lightning strikes.
It’s natural for humans to hold disproportionate fears of certain kinds of death. As many Americans die from gunshot wounds every two days as died in the Paris attacks, yet we have powerful lobbies dedicated to preventing Congress from passing any laws to prevent that.
And it isn’t as if there is a risk-free option. Which would you rather have: An 8-year-old Syrian boy spending the next 10 years going to American shopping malls and playing baseball or spending the next 10 years being told that the highest aspiration in life is strapping a bomb to his chest?
Still, despite all of my years listening to conservative talk radio, the outcry on the right took me by surprise. Most conservative talk-show hosts and presidential candidates are more inclined to govern by Christian principles than I am, but they overwhelmingly favored blocking Syrian refugees as long as there was any chance a terrorist might get through.
I haven’t read the Bible lately, but I’m pretty sure that nothing in Scripture exempts us from our obligation to help the weak and suffering until our personal risk is reduced to zero.
Moreover, refusing refugees is exactly what ISIS wants us to do. ISIS views refugees from the Islamic State as apostates. My teeth grind at the thought of giving terrorists what they want, especially out of pure fear.
Besides, nobody who wants to get into the United States is more thoroughly vetted than political refugees. So far, the government is batting nearly 1.000 in efforts to keep out refugees who turn terrorist—not bad for government work. ISIS-backed terrorists who want to get into the United States would probably find it easier—and certainly faster—to hike across the Mexican desert.
In an effort to puzzle this out, my thoughts turned to an increasingly robust body of research that suggests that liberals and conservatives don’t just hold different opinions. Their minds work in fundamentally different ways, and the differences begin showing up in childhood.
Liberals grow up neurotic and indecisive (that’s me!); conservatives grow up fearful of change and outside threats. Rose McDermott, a professor of political science, wrote with her colleagues in the American Journal of Political Science, “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative”
In a much-debated blog post, liberal pundit Kevin Drum warned against fighting conservative fears with mockery: “people won’t even listen to you unless they think you take their concerns seriously,” he wrote. “And probably the best way to convince people that you don’t take a problem seriously is to mock it.”
As if to prove the point, President Obama delivered a thoughtful, carefully parsed response to the Paris attacks, then added this shot at Republican presidential candidates: “At first they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about 3-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”
Guess which part of his comments got air time on Rush Limbaugh?
This would all be predictable political posturing were it not that refugees are actually suffering and dying. Like it or not, we helped created the mess they are in. Every step we take to ensure that innocent Syrians remain trapped between two evil regimes just makes ISIS stronger.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.