Over the last day or so, we’ve seen a huge rush by Republican politicians — from presidential candidates to state legislators to governors, including our own — to bar Syrian refugees from our shores.
President Obama has termed the proposal to let in only Christian Syrian refugees “shameful.” My initial reaction yesterday was to say he was right. For me, it was the religious test more than anything else. Nothing speaks more directly to what this country is about than to respect freedom of belief and expression. Y’all know how I oppose “hate crime” laws, because I believe it’s unAmerican to punish beliefs or attitudes? It’s related to that. Punish actions, not beliefs. Bar terrorists, not Muslims.
But overall, is it “shameful” to say, hey, wait a minute on letting Syrian refugees into the country, after at least one of the Paris attackers got into Europe that way? Not necessarily. There’s an element of pragmatic self-preservation in it.
Do I think nativism and xenophobia are mixed up in it? Yes. Do I think there’s an element of We’ve got ours, so pull up the ladder behind us? (The “ours” being an element of security that Europe lacks.) Yes.
But I don’t think it’s inherently evil to take care in such a situation. Just because some unpleasant impulses are mixed up in the situation doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have second thoughts.
Most of us today condemn the practice of interning Japanese Americans during World War II. We associate it with the racism that was so common in America at the time, and yep, that was mixed up with it. But it wasn’t irrational to have a security concern about people on our shores who may have had some sense of loyalty to Japan. It was an overreaction, knowingly locking up thousands of loyal Americans in order to contain a supposed spy or two. It was going after squirrels with an elephant gun. It was an injustice — it was thousands of injustices. It was unfair. Ultimately, it was wrong.
But it wasn’t irrational. We know, for instance, of the Niihau Incident, in which a nisei couple aided a downed Japanese pilot from the Pearl Harbor attack. Humans are complicated; their loyalties not always easy to predict.
Does that excuse the internment? No, because loyal Americans were treated unjustly. It was wrong. But I don’t join with those who seem to believe it was all about racism. Were there plenty of Americans who wanted to see the Yellow Peril locked up? Sure. But that’s not all it was.
Bottom line, it’s wrong to slam the door on Syrian refugees. But while I know nativism and intolerance play a role in many people’s eagerness to do so, that’s not all that’s going on.
It’s very easy to do what partisans do: To notice that it’s Republicans calling to bar the refugees, and Democrats calling it “shameful,” and use it as another excuse to split us into two reconcilable camps — the good people over here, and the bad people over there.
In this post, I’m deliberately resisting that, doing my best to see the merits of each position. Although in the end, I’m for carefully letting refugees in, with our eyes wide open. Which appears to be what we’ve been doing.