ISIS boasts that it’s embedding its fighters in the flood of refugees escaping war-torn Syria. Frontline Greece says it doesn’t have the resources to properly screen the tsunami of humanity. Brussels, after years of looking the other way, is on lockdown looking for terrorists involved in planning the Paris attacks and more, who travel freely in a borderless Europe and beyond. And in Mali, Al Qaeda storms a hotel, killing hostages, to make sure we don’t forget it’s still a threat.
Meanwhile President Obama, trying to sound measured, calm and resolute in response to the shocking global expansion of the pernicious group he earlier dismissed as the “junior varsity,” comes across as tone deaf to reasonable Americans’ legitimate concerns that our government lacks a comprehensive strategy to keep us safe. Preferring leaders who are “strong and wrong” rather than “weak and right,” vast numbers of Americans are supporting Donald Trump because, among other reasons, he wants to bomb the you-know-what out of ISIS wherever it is and institute surveillance on American mosques, closing down some of them. Jeb Bush says we should limit refugees to Christians, the totally delusional Ben Carson likens Muslims to rabid dogs, and the rest of the GOP falls in line with one plan or another for all-out war, oblivious to the connection between the rise of ISIS and our ill-considered invasion of Iraq post- 9/11. A majority of Americans now wants to keep out all Syrian refugees.
This wouldn’t be the first time in our history that the United States has acted shamefully toward refugees fleeing for their lives and toward our own citizens. Remember FDR’s exclusion of Jews fleeing Hitler and his caving in to public hysteria by his WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. But, for the most part, we have been an amazingly open country throughout our history, creating strength from diversity. (An amusing but insightfully sad Dave Granlund cartoon shows the Pilgrims’ crowded boat about to land in Plymouth with the Native Americans saying “I think we need stronger vetting of these Christian refugees.”) Today’s rise of global terrorism does require greater prudence and vigilance. But not hysteria.
Yes, it appears that at least one or two of the Paris attackers came from Syria posing as a refugee, taking advantage of a flawed and porous European system. But it’s also true that perhaps the most difficult way to get into the United States is to come from Syria. Yesterday’s NY Times laid out the steps in a process that takes from 18 months to two years. The House this past week passed still more stringent screening. Secretary of State John Kerry has just written to the nation’s governors to reassure them about the process.
Of far greater threat to our homeland is the visa waiver program , that allows citizens of participating countries in Europe and elsewhere to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. They’re not subject to in-person interviews or other screening. That’s how the 9/11 terrorists got in. Far better to amend the law to require visas of everyone who has travelled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years.
The challenge is also to get the European nations to clean up their acts. The admirable Schengen (treaty) concept of open European borders aids commerce and labor, but needs adjustment in these critical times. Europeans need to clean up their handling of passengers and share their watch lists. Several of the terrorists in the Paris slaughter were European nationals with European visas, but they had traveled to Syria . Clearly, more meaningful cooperation and intelligence sharing is needed with other countries.
Finding a reasonable response to refugees is necessary for more than humanitarian reasons. Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor under George W. Bush, speaking yesterday on Face the Nation, argued that leaving refugees abroad in desperate circumstances in make-shift settlement camps creates a pool for ISIS and Al Qaeda to convert to terrorism. Over time, we then ensure that those new recruits will grow up to become threats to our children and grandchildren’s generations.
There is a reasonable recommendation in Congress to prohibit those on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms and other weapons of mass destruction. But, because members seem more afraid of the NRA than they are of terrorists, I assume this proposal will not go far.
While some leaders on the left seem to dismiss all concerns about accepting Syrian refugees as un-American and illiberal, the Republicans go to the other extreme, damning all Muslims when they should be targeting Al Qaeda and ISIS (better known in the Arabic pejorative as Daesh.) Surely there is a rational middle ground that involves a global, collaborative, multidimensional military, economic, social and political strategy as well as a more effective screening process to weed out potential threats at the same time meeting the crying human needs of refugees fleeing the enemy we share.
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