In a video that went viral after the Paris attacks, a French reporter interviewed a little boy, around age 4, and his dad outside the concert venue Bataclan, where people were leaving flowers and candles to honor the estimated 89 people killed there by terrorists. The boy says they have to be careful and change houses because the bad guys are really mean and have guns. But the dad insists that France is their home, and while the bad guys may have guns, “we have the flowers” to fight against the guns. So “the flowers and the candles are here to protect us?” asks the child. Yes, assures his father.
This poignant testimony to resistance, to the power of love and solidarity, and to faith in humanity despite everything stands in stark contrast to the mean-spirited and sometimes hysterical responses, nearly all of them self-serving, by our politicians. Many of those responses were inspired by the usual media rush to judgment, when multiple outlets quickly reported that a Syrian passport was found on or near the body of one of the suicide bombers, linking the Paris attacks to the migrant crisis. Here in Michigan, where we have the second-largest Arab-American population in the country, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder lost no time in asserting that the state would halt efforts to resettle Syrian refugees, leading a stampede of at least 29 other governors who also came out in opposition to resettlement.
Never mind that, several days later, Agence France-Presse reported that the Syrian passport found next to one of the suicide bombers was either fake, stolen or, as the German interior minister suggested, possibly planted there.
Donald Trump, not surprisingly, said he would both ban Syrians from coming to the United States and deport those already here. Where would they go? Back to Syria, where he, The Donald, would build a “big, beautiful safe zone” in one of the most dangerous countries in the world — perhaps modeled after his bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. We also have “absolutely no choice” but to close down some mosques because “some bad things are happening.” And he wants a “total and complete shutdown” of our borders to Muslims. Ben Carson, alleging that the terrorists got into France posing as migrants, demanded an end to any federal funding to assist with Syrian refugee resettlement. He also famously likened the refugees to rabid dogs. Ted Cruz said he would introduce legislation to forbid Syrian Muslims from entering the country but would allow Christians in. Chris Christie wouldn’t allow any in, not even “orphans under age five.”
Not to be outdone, Mike Huckabee recommended closing our borders and building an encampment for Syrian refugees, “but closer to where they live” because they don’t know our language or culture. On top of that, Syrians wouldn’t like it here because they have “lived in the desert their entire lives” and thus couldn’t adapt to our non-desert climate. Never mind that tens of thousands of refugees from warmer places like Somalia and Iraq have settled in Minnesota and managed to live to tell the tale. Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, one of the seemingly less crazy of the bunch, said his response would be to set up an agency with a “mandate” to promote what he calls “Judeo-Christian values” overseas to counter Islamist propaganda. And of course, we had the House (including 47 Democrats) pass new restrictions on Syrian immigration, requiring that the director of the FBI, the director of national intelligence and the secretary of Homeland Security personally vouch for each and every Syrian immigrant entering the country.
Now, in the wake of the horrific attacks in Beirut and Paris and the downing of a Russian plane, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, it is hardly surprising that people are scared and xenophobia appears to be on the rise. ISIS is indeed barbaric. Of course we need to prevent attacks here. But the vetting process for Syrian refugees is already onerous and extensive, taking anywhere from 18 to 24 months. To stereotype and target the millions of desperate people from a war-torn country based on a now seemingly specious connection between one of the terrorists and a bogus passport is shameful, knee-jerk scapegoating. We don’t need such simplistic grandstanding. What we need is to figure out the much more complex and seemingly intractable problem of confronting the lethal force that ISIS has become.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.