Opinion: On the question of refugees, don’t kick the cat


Mstyslav Chernov

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station in Hungary, Sept. 4.

Late last month, 55 Montana legislators insisted that Gov. Steve Bullock “use all legal means to block or resist the placement of Syrian refugees in our great state at this time.”

They are in good company. Well, in some sort of company: at last count 31 state governors, a majority of U.S. presidential aspirants and the U.S. House of Representatives have agreed.

They have all reminded me of the do-it-yourselfer who, while hanging a picture on the wall, misses the nail but hits his thumb. In his pain—and rage—he kicks the cat that is snoozing beneath the ladder. We smile at his irrational response but we understand the outburst.

These recent eruptions of xenophobia began with the governors as a response to the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris. But when 55 state legislators, 31 governors, a majority of U.S. presidential aspirants and the U.S. House of Representatives confuse Paris Friday the 13th with Syrian refugees, they are kicking the cat.

Let’s sort it out. Paris Friday the 13th was perpetrated by a few Belgian and French nationals of North African descent. Their carnage was claimed by the so-called “Islamic State,” criminal zealots who dream of a “Caliphate” in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Syrian refugees are 4 million people—half of them children—who have fled the “Caliphate.” Many of them are actually victims of that “Caliphate,” and 700,000 of them have traveled to Europe. None was involved in Paris Friday the 13th. None has expressed interest in traveling to Montana.

By the way, the legislators and the governors, the presidential aspirants and the congressmen fear—or more likely want you to fear—that a tidal wave of Syrian refugees will sweep the state or the nation. And they want you to believe that they are alert to the danger.

In fact, to enter the United States a refugee from Syria must be vetted by the UNHCR and then scrutinized by three separate agencies of the U.S. government. The process takes between 18 months and two years. No wonder that, since 2012, none has entered Montana and only 2,174 have entered the United States. Call it 0.0007 percent of America’s total population. Some tidal wave.

Pretending to equate Paris Friday the 13th with Syrian refugees is a form of the shell game that politicians and pundits often play. When Al-Qaeda perpetrated 9/11, we responded by toppling a venal but neither-here-nor-there Middle Eastern tyrant, Saddam Hussein.

When Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 innocent Americans of Japanese descent were removed from the Pacific Coast and interned at Heart Mountain or elsewhere in the heartland. Other examples litter the historical landscape: “Remember the Maine” … or the Gulf of Tonkin, for that matter.

What do constituents expect from officeholders and what do they so often get instead? They expect officeholders to (a) analyze an issue, (b) support policies that speak to the issue, and (c) explain to their constituents how the issue is complicated and why the policies are appropriate. Instead, officeholders (a) sniff out any public anxieties that may surround an issue, (b) deploy any rhetoric that can fan anxiety into fear, and (c) explain how their no-nonsense approach qualifies them for re-election.

As citizens, we should repudiate these games. We should keep our eyes on the nut. We should encourage our officeholders to do likewise. Or, to return to the original figure of speech: Don’t kick the cat.

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and, occasionally, in Red Lodge.

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