People For the American Way

In Time of Crisis, Too Many Politicians Feed Fear and Scapegoating

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

In the somber days since ISIS terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on Paris, elected leaders from around the world have been searching for solutions. But far too many American politicians have fallen back, instead, on that old standby in times of crisis: Stirring up fear and finding someone, anyone, to scapegoat, no matter how unconnected the scapegoated person is with the problem at hand.

Sadly, in Congress that took the form of a House vote to in essence stop the U.S. resettlement of refugees from Iraq and Syria by imposing nearly impossible bureaucratic requirements on what is already the toughest vetting system for anyone seeking entry into the U.S. This bill was scapegoating in its purest form, framing as terrorists people who are fleeing the very violence that this bill was supposedly trying to prevent. 

The House vote — in which 47 Democrats joined nearly every Republican — was the culmination of a week of cowardice and bigotry sweeping the political landscape.

There was the Missouri state legislator who urged his governor to watch out for "all flavors" of Muslims and the mayor of Roanoke who invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a positive model for how to treat American Muslims. 

And there were the 31 governors who declared that their states would turn away Syrian refugees who go through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. 

Not wanting to miss out on the action, of course, Republican presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to outdo one another. Donald Trump hasspeculated that refugees from Syria "could be one of the great Trojan horses." Mike Huckabee, in what can't even be described as a dog-whistle, has told Americans to "wake up and smell the falafel" when it comes to Syrian refugees. Chris Christie saidhe'd get tough on Syrian orphans. Ted Cruz has suggested that the U.S. only admit Christian refugees from Syria, although how he plans on testing people's religious faith is unclear. Jeb Bush has hinted at the same thing, saying he would back refugees who can "prove" that they're Christian, which shows what this is all about. If you have a system that's strong enough to "prove" someone's true religion, don't you think it could also properly vet people for national security purposes? Jeb Bush was supposed to be the mature establishment candidate. So much for that.

These politicians are feeding what a new Public Religion Research Institute pollreports is an "increased xenophobic streak in the American public." It's no coincidence that threats against American Muslims have been reported across the country in the days since the Paris attacks.

It is of course reasonable to ask that refugees be vetted — they already are — but if security were the real issue, our current debate wouldn't be about refugees at all. In fact, if someone were intent on sneaking into America to cause harm, exploiting the refugee resettlement program with its intensive and lengthy screening processes would be the hardest way to do it. No, what is behind the anti-refugee campaign of the Right is not reasonable concerns about security, but something much uglier.

The candidates who are now spewing cynical anti-refugee rhetoric are often the same ones who claim that their opponents don't believe in "American exceptionalism," and the movement so willing to embrace explicit anti-Muslim bigotry is the same one constantly telling us that religious freedom is under attack. They seem to have forgotten the vibrant pluralism and commitment to shared values that make us exceptional, and a beacon of freedom to the persecuted, in the first place. Looking back on the history of our country, our best days have been when we opened ourselves to people facing persecution, not the times we turned them away and demonized them. Let's not let this become the American Way.