Post-Paris: compassion, with reality

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Governor Terry Branstad is taking a beating for his efforts to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement in the state, but he had little choice.

As important as compassion toward the refugees of the world is, the first job of our leaders is to protect the safety of their own people. Branstad did what any responsible leader would - take a time out until we can process the terrorism tragedies in Paris and Beirut and come up with a plan to safely resume settlement.

The director of the FBI admits that the U.S. does not currently have the capacity to investigate all the Syrian refugees who want to enter the U.S. Until we do, we should work with other nations to create safe zones within the Middle East where people can be cared for and screened before being relocated to North America or Europe.

As human beings, we cannot ignore the plight of Syrians and others fleeing hunger, violence and persecution - just as we would do if faced with their plights. But we also can't ignore the security of our own country and communities.

Our supposed screening did nothing to expose the Boston Marathon bombers or 9-11 hijackers as they were invited into the country. We don't even have fingerprints for all refugees entering.

We have to be realistic. We have no way of knowing what kind of evil extremists may slip out of the Middle East along with what undoubtedly are groups of tens of thousands of largely good and well-meaning people. At least one of the assailants in Paris did just that. In the kind of terrorist warfare happening today, it doesn't take an army to do great harm, just one maniac strapped in a body bomb. This moratorium is no permanent solution, and to the governor's credit, he did not propose it as anything but temporary, until we can safely create a plan. Iowans should respect this.

With all this said, it is truly sickening to see human tragedy being twisted in so many avenues in this country to suit people's own political, religious or racial agendas. Both liberals and conservatives are doing it, and it's shameful. We have some extremists amongst ourselves, too.

Remember how America was after the 9-11 attacks? For a time at least, people came together to grieve and heal. The flag was revered again, people admired first responders and volunteers who did amazing things to help, people supported their military. Speeches and concerts celebrated an America where all political factions could come together when they were needed to.

What happened to that unity of spirit? It only took moments after the Paris attacks for our viciously divided country to descend from concern for a victimized city, to bitterly passing around crude memes using the bloodshed to promote every possible agenda, from throwing Obama out of office to electing their favorite candidate, from ending all immigration in the U.S. to huddling in basements full of Uzis and a decade's worth of canned Spam.

First and foremost, we are human beings. We should hurt for the people of Paris. It is ugly irony that this place of culture, song and romance should be stained with the blood of innocents.

We should also be able to agree that ISIS and the groups and individuals like it are not political, or religious, or revolutionary. No country or true religion on earth exists to prey on innocents. Attacking unarmed people in a sidewalk cafe, or a concert hall, or at a soccer game, is not battle, or politics. It is no statement of anything but ignorant hatred. It takes no courage or conviction to sneak-attack innocent people.

Every society on earth should recognize ISIS for what it is - pathetic, sick, cowardly. There should be no country to harbor or accept them. Leaders of nations all over the world will meet next month - in Paris - on environmental issues. Why not use that occasion for a global pledge of cooperation to wipe out terrorism and terrorists, surely also a threat to quality of life everywhere?

We also understand that a small number of extremist hate-mongers do not represent all Muslims, we do; but, where are all Muslims who should be decrying this violence and exiling all those who engage in terrorism from this faith?

In our reaction, we must take care not to descend to the level of the extremists ourselves.

The immediate impulse is to bomb out entire regions of the Middle East, to make someone pay, in the manner of "Shock and Awe" in 2003. By some counts, those sorties killed as many as 7,400 uninvolved civilians. Years of occupation did not eliminate terrorism, in fact many would say it fostered it. An Oxford study of ISIS members finds that most are in their 20s, growing up under American-occupation in Iraq, in conditions that amount to civil war for which they blame the U.S.

Complete military destruction in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere would not eliminate the threat of terrorism. This kind of war cannot be won with bombs.

Ultimately, success would come in winning the minds of the world to stop accepting terrorism as a means of political expression. And taking in every refugee from the Middle East would not solve root issues of chronic poverty, violence, corruption, religious persecution and social disenfranchisement that causes people to flee their home countries to begin with.

If we are led to hatred against entire countries, classes or religions, terrorist succeeded. If we submit to living in fear, or are distracted to wage wars that cannot be won, that is exactly what terrorists want. If we squabble amongst ourselves and continue to split our country apart, they win.

Just as we express sorrow for Paris, we should do the same for the conditions that force us to take pause in welcoming refugees from the Middle East into our borders, for now.

We will not miss the irony, as we set up our nativity scenes, of having to turn away refugees just as we celebrate the story of a Middle Eastern couple turned away as they desperately sought shelter in their time of need.