Syrian refugees and an American shame
The sign on the Statue of Liberty reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” If some presidential candidates had their way, they would probably add, “Yes, but hold off on the Syrians.”
In the wake of the Paris attacks, followed by the killing of at least 14 people in California by a Muslim couple, the United States has fallen into a state of fear in which paranoia strikes deep and facts do not matter. One presidential candidate calls for a national register of Muslims, another says only Christian refugees should be admitted, a third, speaking of Syrian refugees, used an analogy about rabid dogs and the US House of Representatives votes to keep them out.
The issue of how to handle this very sticky situation remains unclear as what the only obvious thing emerging from these events is that fear seems to be winning the upper hand and driving the political debate.
The political climate, heated to fever point by shrill rhetoric from the Republican primary campaign trail, evokes memories of some of the most shameful chapters in US history — the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and American reluctance to accept Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
Even the language is reminiscent of that dark era. At a campaign rally in Alabama ten days after Islamic State (ISIS) attackers killed 130 in Paris, Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination, spelled out what he had in mind for Muslims in the United States: “Just to set it clear, I want surveillance for these people.” The crowd cheered, in obvious agreement that “these people” are suspect, distinct from Americans of other religions, and dangerous.
Trump would not allow Syrian refugees into the country, favours a national database for Muslims — US citizens and foreign residents alike — and has said the concept of special identification cards for “these people” is worth considering. This is an idea that has enjoyed a measure of support since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. But no would-be president in recent memory has advocated a registry for Muslims.
A Gallup poll in 2007 indicated that 39% of Americans asked were in favour of special identification for Muslims. That same year, a Washington radio host suggested that Muslims in the United States should be identified with a crescent-shaped tattoo or distinctive arm band. The programme was a hoax, an experiment meant to test the views of listeners. Many called in to agree.
Ever since Trump opened his campaign with a blistering attack on illegal immigrants from Mexico — “They are bringing crime. They’re rapists” — the dominant topic of the race for the Republican nomination had been immigration. After Paris, the subject became national security, made up of several components — immigration, refugees, ISIS and Islam. After a fake Syrian passport was found next to the body of one of the attackers, Syrian refugees turned into public threat number one in the minds of many.
The standard hype and exaggerations of an American electoral season gave way to outright fabrications. One of the most striking concerned the number of Syrian refugees President Barack Obama’s administration intends to admit. This is 10,000, a tiny fraction of the Syrians getting refuge in Europe from the killing fields of their country. So far, just more than 2,100 Syrians have resettled in the United States after a vetting process that lasts 18-24 months. Germany has opened its doors to 800,000.
But as anti-refugee, anti-Muslim sentiment sweeps across the United States, facts don’t matter to those who want to stoke fear. Take Trump, his closest rival Ben Carson and former Hewlett- Packard chief executive officer Carly Fiorina, all citing fictitious numbers.
Trump: “Our president wants to take in 250,000 people from Syria. I mean, think of it, 250,000 people.”
Carson: “When the president says things like, you know, through an executive order, ‘I’m going to bring 100,000 people in here from Syria,’ Congress needs to say ‘You do that and we’re going to de-fund everything including your breakfast.’”
Fiorina: “I am angry that President Obama unilaterally decides that we’ll accept up to 100,000 Syrian refugees while his administration admits we cannot determine their ties to terrorism.”
The numbers are plain wrong but such falsehoods are rarely countered immediately and by the time fact-checking organisations brand them as lies, they have been repeated endlessly by xenophobes and bigots who inhabit a parallel universe on the internet.
Not content with leading the anti-Syrian refugee chorus, Trump has gone a step further to portray Muslims in the United States as terrorist sympathisers. “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down (on September 11, 2001),” he said at a rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
No such thing happened, according to police and New Jersey state officials, and no video exists. What does not exist, either, is vigorous condemnation by Republican leaders of falsehoods that stoke hatred and fear.