Syrian refugees force us to face all our responsibilities as Americans

Reports that at least one of the killers in Paris came to Europe masquerading as a refugee have sparked a huge response. More than two dozen governors, including Georgia’s Nathan Deal, say their states won’t accept the 10,000 Syrian asylum-seekers bound for the U.S., although their legal authority to do so is questionable. At the same time, President Barack Obama has branded those who would block refugees, or give priority to Syrian Christians, as anti-American xenophobes.

In other words, it’s our usual collective response to a difficult problem, which helps explain why we have so many difficult problems.

Since Vietnam, the American public has been told one key to warfare is winning “hearts and minds” (never mind that our track record of winning wars in the era beginning with Vietnam has been spottier than our record before Vietnam). On the refugee issue, Americans seem determined to use either their hearts or their minds, but not both.

It is unquestionably heart-breaking to read the reports of real refugees from Syria. That war, with the Assad regime’s use of not only chemical weapons but such “conventional” weapons as shrapnel-filled barrels dropped and exploded over villages, has been brutal in a way we can hardly fathom. Then there are the atrocities committed by ISIS: beheadings, rapes, forced conversions, mass killings. I know of no one who disputes the genuine reasons for Syrians to flee their homeland.

At the same time, there have been warnings from the beginning — not only from xenophobes — that such a sudden, vast migration offered an opportunity for ISIS to send fighters to Europe and North America.

Imagine there is even one terrorist for every 10,000 real refugees, just 1 percent of 1 percent of the human tide hitting our shores. Millions of Syrians have been displaced during the war. Hundreds of thousands seek asylum in Europe. Combine those possible numbers with the significant number of homegrown terrorists in the West, many of whom have fought and/or trained with ISIS, and the potential for terrorist attacks like the one in Paris is practically unlimited.

So the answer to this refugee crisis requires our hearts and our minds. It also requires some cooling of the rhetoric. While the president is correct that we should impose no “religious test” for refugees in a pluralistic country such as ours, there is an argument that Syrian Christians should be considered for priority in the same way that European Jews seeking refuge should have been greater priority in the 1930s. It’s not that ISIS is less apt to kill their fellow Muslims, but that its leaders seem to put a premium on wiping out Christianity in the territory under their control — much as Hitler was a menace to all but was particularly intent on eliminating Jews.

A country as large and generous as ours — charities serving Syrian refugees have reported huge upticks in giving, so let’s not accuse Americans of being disinclined to help — there ought to be a solution that balances charity with prudence. The all-or-nothing approaches suggested by our rhetoric don’t live up to any of our responsibilities as a nation.

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