In the Face of Terror

In the Face of Terror

national_park_service_9-11_statue_of_liberty_and_wtc_fireIn the days immediately following 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. Standing before a lectern, sandwiched between a dark-skinned bearded man and a woman wrapped in headscarf, he addressed cameras directly.
“The American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks,” he began, “and so were Muslims all across the world. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.”
He quoted the Quran. He urged Americans to treat their Muslim neighbors with respect. “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” he said. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America,” he said. “They represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed.”
That was six days after the towers fell. What a difference a decade makes. Today, Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is advocating putting certain mosques under surveillance. He also told a reporter he would support a database to track American Muslims.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
But Trump is not alone. In the wake of Paris, where 130 were killed and 368 wounded, people are scared. We Americans are scared. Paris reminds us of our own loss, of our own brutal encounter with terrorism, and calls for enhanced security have understandably poured out as a result.
But in the scramble to protect ourselves, we are forgetting ourselves. We are forgetting the things that, as President Bush said, “represent the best of America.”
This isn’t just in international circles or in Washington, D.C. This is right here at home, in New Hampshire.
In the wake of a crumbling Syria, 4.3 million Syrians have fled their country. They left in hopes of evading Assad and ISIS, and escaping civil war. They now sit stranded in Turkey and Europe, unable to return home, with nowhere to go. To date, Germany has accepted more than 38,000 of these refugees; Canada, more than 36,000. America, meanwhile, has opened its doors to 2,200.
That number was poised to jump to 10,000 in 2016, but with Paris serving as a punctuation point, governors across the country are demanding the border closed to Syrian refugees. A terrorist could be in their midst, they argue; the risk is too great.
French President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, said France will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
The American fear is real, palpable. And it is understandable: Terrorism, the extremists’ chosen tactic, is designed to foment, to amplify, the fear response. The true victim of terrorism is society: Those killed are simply murdered, but the fear generated by the act reverberates among the survivors. Terrorism reigns among the living, and in the wake of Paris we are the survivors.
America is 320 million scared. Terrorism is proving its effectiveness.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
The lens of fear has twisted us. We are in the throes of the greatest refugee wave since World War II, but instead of seeing 4.3 million victims of terror we see 4.3 million possible terrorists. We stand in the land of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” still emblazoned on its base, and shut the door. Why? Out of fear.
“That’s not the America I know,” President Bush said in 2001. “That’s not the America I value.”
Terrorism is real. The threat is real. But the threat is not the number of victims it claims by murder but the pressure it puts upon free societies to abandon their freedoms. We are fighting a war of ideas, and in the scramble to make our lives safe we are losing our principles. The roots of our strength are in our pluralism, our openness and our diversity. ISIS cannot change that. Only we can.
And we are. Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan joined that call to put a pause on the Syrian refugee resettlement. Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed close behind. And Rep. Frank Guinta and Rep. Annie Kuster both voted to add additional screening measures to the refugee resettlement process when Syrians are involved.
“Live Free or Die” be damned. New Hampshire marches to the chorus of fear.
Only Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has staked out an alternative position: “After the Vietnam War we took 750,000 Vietnamese,” she told WMUR. “We took over 500,000 Cubans when Castro took over Cuba. We’ve taken Somalis, we’ve taken people from all over the world.”
“We do need to vet them,” she said, “but we also need to look at how we can expedite that process so it’s as efficient as possible.”
An America that sees victims of terror and is unafraid to respond? One that rushes to wrap them in her cloak, to welcome them to her shores? That’s the America I know. That’s the America I value.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in November of 2015.

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