When historians look back at the United States’ reaction to the Paris bombings, what will they see? By whatever standard you use to differentiate the mere past from capital-H History—and it does seem like that interval gets shorter all the time—we know a few things will be true.
First, all our well-meaning tokens of social-media support will have vanished. Your tri-color wash avatar will be just another data-point in Facebook's digital model of your life—its legacy will be to help some soulless algorithm determine which Mother’s Day ad to show you.
Second, we will still have terrorism, including terrorism committed in the name of Islam. There will also likely still be terrorism committed in the name of Buddhism and in the name of Christ and in the name of Odin, for that matter—wherever violence and a lust for power meet, it's not difficult to pull the mask of religion over your face, too.
Finally: We will know what history thinks of us. At some point, we will know whether the doomsday predictions of ISIS, or the apocalyptic warnings of conservative politicians (which are not so terribly far apart) will have come to pass—and we’ll see clearly if the hardening of hearts and the closing of minds was, in any sense, “worth it.” How we decide to treat those who would seek refuge in our country will be the true measure by which history will judge us, not by international coalitions forged or retribution exacted.
That because displaced people aren’t going anywhere, if you’ll pardon the grim pun. Indeed, though the flood of those fleeing the Syrian civil war has already caused the worst refugee crisis in 70 years, many predict that it will only get worse.
With a historic drought already playing a part in Syria’s instability, the second half of the century could begin to see “climate refugees” from the rest of the Middle East as well—fleeing literal hot zones rather than figurative ones. Most of them want to come to the United States: 23 percent of the over 400,000 people surveyed, in 151 counties, name America as their desired destination. Other Western countries are distant also-rans: at second place, the U.K. appeals to just 7 percent, while Germany—who has accepted the greatest proportion of those seeking refuge in the current crisis—is the dream home of just 4 percent.
As we sit in the middle of the debate over how or even whether to welcome hopeless and helpless at our doorstep, the viciousness of the recent rhetoric about refugees is sometimes difficult to reconcile with how badly they want to come here.
Maybe the solution to the United States refugee policy could be solved on the demand side: Don’t worry about feeding, clothing and housing migrants, just put them on diet of straight Fox News and hope they turn tail. To be sure, watching Fox sometimes makes me question if I want to live here.
Here’s the good news: ISIS’s propaganda, in a very meaningful way, is not working. While the terror group has succeeded in recruiting some disaffected, disillusioned Muslims to travel from the West to their would be-caliphate, the refugee crisis is quantifiable proof that the vast majority of Muslims would rather take a chance on democracy than participate in and live under ISIS’s cruel theocracy.
The bad news is: Right-wing propaganda, in an even more meaningful way, is working. The content of what too many conservative governors and presidential candidates have been saying differs from ISIS’s own characterization of our country mainly through verb tense and pronoun referent: ISIS preaches as though Americans’ hatred and rejection of all Muslims has already come to pass; Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and their ilk thunder about the drastic actions we have (yet) to undertake.
ISIS would very much like Muslims around the world to think that the West is at war with Islam and that Western leaders would just as soon banish the religion off the face of the planet.
To keep up with the various outrageous infringements on civil liberties and outright bigotry being bandied about on the right would be beyond this poor columnist’s capabilities: Since the moment I started writing, I’ve seen refugees compared to rabid dogs, to rattlesnakes; lawmakers have suggested registration, internment camps, shutting down “any place where radicals are being inspired.”
One wonders if that would include those outlets carrying that very suggestion.
That some of our GOP candidates would institute a religious test for these refugees is the kind of irony that brings me back to the question of how history will judge our behavior in this moment—because the ironies are pilling on each other so quickly, I think it may take the judiciousness of history to unpack them.
For example, the “Christians only” proposal generates a cacophony of logical hiccups all on its own—it valorizes the religion of Syrian refugees while heaping scorn on the millions of Catholics who have already crossed the Southern border; it erects a barrier to practicing one’s religion in a country founded by those who desired that very thing; it necessitates a narrow definition of the one religion whose great innovation was to welcome anyone who sought it.
I want to believe that the passage of time will untangle these messy truths, and it might. But as much as history clarifies, it also generalizes. In 20 years, the parsing of whether or not it was a particular strain of conservative Christians who wanted to ban Muslim refugees won’t matter as much as what might happen to the tens of thousands of people who were turned away.
When I debate people about the question of allowing refugees into the country, the fearful energy behind their argument is everything that might happen should terrorists ride the tide our generosity and attack us from within. And I can only answer with the truth: There is no guarantee that we won’t be attacked if keep the refugees out, either. We will never be completely safe.
But if we let the quest for total safety guide us, we won’t be the same country we started out trying to protect.
The trick of being on the right side of history is not to anticipate what might happen should your worst fears be realized, it is to ask what part of you suffers when you are a slave to those fears. We can’t afford to act out of hate; we can’t even afford to hate those who fan hate’s flames.
I’ll leave a more beautiful summation of that philosophy to Reinhold Niebuhr, writing (presciently, of course) in The Irony of American History:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”