Two days after the bipartisan immigration reform bill was introduced in the Senate, reality again reared its inconvenient head. The Brothers Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, have been identified as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. The two were from Chechnya, a Russian region rife with religious insurgency, and were here in the United States as permanent residents, though Dzhokhar reportedly became a citizen last Sept. 11. One is dead, and the other is on the run.
If immigration reform is to become law, then Congress and President Obama must first address the fact that not everyone who comes to America likes us. Indeed, some immigrants want to kill us. As the horror of the past week reminds us, America is not immune from terror on its own soil. After 9/11, the country took serious measures to curb the importation of terror and to scrutinize more carefully who is granted a visa to play, work, and study. But it needs to do more.
Already, the number of visas granted to countries that have produced jihadists has been curbed. According to an analysis by NBC News, Yemeni students received 279 visas in 2010, compared with 376 in 2001. Visas granted to Pakistani students dropped from 3,880 in 2001 to 1,093, a 72 percent decline. As for Saudi Arabia, student visas increased, but overall non-immigration visas declined.
People are people, and people are prone to carry the grudges of the old country with them. In our ever-more mobile and interconnected world, that can translate into killing and maiming Americans—regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation. Bomb blasts, as opposed to bombers, don’t discriminate.
A free America remains porous enough that terror can creep in, and so one area that warrants reexamination is America’s VISA Waiver program. According to the State Department, “the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less” for “business, tourism, visiting or pleasure.” Presently, 37 countries across Europe, Asia, and Oceania participate in the program, including England, France, Germany, Brunei, Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand—though not Russia or Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers reportedly lived before coming to America. NATO member Turkey, meanwhile, does not participate in the program.
The VWP screens for country of citizenship but may not sufficiently take into account other factors that could affect whether grievances are being transported to our shores. According to a former senior New York Police Department intelligence expert, the “VISA Waiver program is one that seems like it is ripe to being exploited.” He explained that a “Frenchman of Algerian origin comes to the United States on VISA waiver, and it is that much more difficult to identify him as a potential threat if he has a clean record.” And yes, ethnicity and family ties are not absolute predictors of anything, but they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.
Like ethnicity, crisis can breed cohesion. Crisis also can strain existing divisions or do both. In the days and months that followed 9/11, the bitterness and schisms laid bare by the 2000 election receded. For more than a moment, but for shorter than an election cycle, America’s divides seemed less graphic. We rooted for the same team, and the definition of “team” expanded overnight. Right after 9/11, Peggy Noonan recalled that everyone was cheering New York City’s “construction workers and electrical workers and cops and emergency medical workers and firemen,” and described how Manhattan’s professional class seemed “so useless.” Watching the police in Massachusetts track down the alleged killer, one is reminded of the sheer grit and guts of law enforcement personnel. Derivatives traders? Not so much.
Previously, common purpose evaporated in the face of human nature, time, and political division. University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg explains: “At first everybody got closer together. [That] lasted a few months. And after that, America got more polarized than ever, and people got more invested in their own belief systems, whether they be conservative or liberal.”
According to the academics, people are hardwired to rally around their own tribe and to revert to their usual self in the face of disaster. The theory is that we coalesce around those who are like us, as fear and reminders of death and mortality move us to push back against our enemies, and the definition of “enemy” becomes fluid as the initial shock and devastation recede.
Sadly, in the days since the bomb blasts, some of the political class could not resist the temptation to settle political scores. Democratic House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer and former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank sought to blame the bombings on sequestration. Senior Obama political adviser David Axelrod attempted to verbally indict the president’s political opponents. As it turned out, all were way off target.
On the other hand, the president reminded us of what he does so well—and what he doesn’t. A day after throwing a self-pitying, anger-filled, finger-pointing fit following his defeat on the gun bill, Barack Obama delivered a stirring speech from the pulpit of Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End, and told Boston and America that “we’ll keep going; we will finish the race.”
As he did following the shootings in Arizona, Obama demonstrated his ability to move a crowd, to eulogize, to capture the moment. As he did with Osama bin Laden, he vowed to hunt down those who scarred us—and he did.
America has digested newcomers from all over the world. It is our history and one of our strengths. It would be tragic if we made one of our virtues a vice and weakness when caution should be our guide.