Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Shame The Bigots But Address The Fear

Republicans have long proven their genius for exploiting fear for political gain, using bigotry and cheap slogans to project an aura of toughness.  Aided by a feckless media, they have long been perceived as better able to protect Americans from harm than Democrats, who are thought to be more concerned with political correctness than national security.  And so, we have GOP leaders, like Jeb!, using alarmist rhetoric about an existential threat to western civilization and agitating for all out war.  In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans are calling for the shutting down of mosques in the U.S., permitting only refugees who can establish their Christian bona fides, and closing our borders to Syrian toddlers trying to escape the ravages of civil war and terrorism. (Mostly) Republican Governors seek to deny resettlement of refugees in their states.  Even the purportedly moderate (by comparison) presidential candidate John Kasich has proposed the creation of a new federal agency that would promote Judeo-Christian beliefs.

It is critical to call out these bigots and moral cowards, to shame them for their xenophobia and ignorance.  President Obama was right in mocking them when he said: “At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”

But Democrats also have to acknowledge that Republicans are tapping into a real fear, that they understand it, and -- in contrast to the hateful rhetoric and simplistic clich├ęs used by Republicans -- that they have the far better approach for keeping Americans safe.

And so, it is important to repeatedly emphasize the fallacy of condemning Islam and all Muslims based on the violence and repression committed by individuals and states in the name of Islam.  As Reza Aslan put it, in a remarkable exchange on CNN in which he repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to move the talking heads off their narrative that Islam is a repressive, violent religion:  "The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush."

It is important to explain that the screening process for accepting refugees is an arduous one that can take 18 to 24 months before a refugee is approved for admission to the U.S.  Refugees are vetted by several different agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security.
Fingerprints are taken, biographical information is collected. They are then each individually interviewed by U.S. officials trained to verify that they're bona fide refugees.  Refugees from Syria are then subject to additional screening that looks at where they came from and what caused them to flee their home, stories that are checked out. All of this occurs before a refugee is allowed to set foot in the country.
It is also important to stress that condemning Islam and refusing to accept refugees who aren't Christian will actually make us less safe.  As President Obama explained:  “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the (Republican) rhetoric that’s been coming out here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there's a war between Islam and the west. When you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims in a wartorn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative.”

Democrats will play right into the old GOP playbook that portrays them as arrogant elitists detached from real world concerns unless they are able to assure Americans that they get it -- that they take the fear of ordinary Americans about safety and security seriously and don't consider everyone who expresses concerns about the influx of refugees to be cold-hearted bigots. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has provided a primer on how to do just that:
“We’ve got to beat these guys in hearts, as well as U.S. Air Force,” he said. “We also have to win the moral battle. And that’s a battle of hope, and a vision for the future where we can live together, and I think this is part of that.”  Inslee said he was sensitive to “very legitimate and real” fears that ISIS militants could pose as refugees in order to sneak into America and commit more crimes. But, he said, “Leadership calls for people to recognize it’s real [and] act responsibly — in this case that means insisting on a robust, multi-layered screening process before they’re allowed in this country.” “I think that our nation is tested from time to time, and I think this is one of those times to really dig deep and see what kind of character our nation and my state has,” he added. “I’ve always believed my state and the country has always been a place of refuge from those who are persecuted. Right on the Statue of Liberty, they talk about the wretched refuge of your teeming shore, and I don’t know where we’ve had more people who fit this classification of victim.”
A large swath of the American public clings to false narratives about the nature of Islam and the steadfastness of Republicans when it comes to national security.  It won't be easy, but to change that narrative we need to not only shame GOP leaders for their ignorance and bigotry, but must also assure the American public that Democrats understand and can address their fear. 

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