States must do right thing, accept Syrian refugees

We should not be walling ourselves off from world

FRIDAY’S ATTACK ON PARIS felt like an attack that happened in our backyard despite it having taken place an ocean away. The reason for that is the attackers didn’t target governmental or economic symbols, instead they went after concert venues, sports events, and cafes. They declared war on civilians. They declared war on public gatherings. They declared war on Friday night.

Going out in public shouldn’t count as an act of courage. It’s a common occurrence in a free and open society. One of the great triumphs of modern civilization is that people of all different ethnicities and religions can mingle, can pursue their shared or disparate social interests alongside each other in a peaceable fashion. We live in heterogeneous societies, largely free of tribalism and violent factionalism.

Paris felt personal to us here in America because we share a similar rhythm to life. Doesn’t matter if you’re out clubbing in a big city or attending a high school football game in a small town, we share the joy of being social, of living in a broader community where we don’t constantly look over our shoulders in fear of what our neighbors might do when our backs are turned. We’ve figured out how to live together, and that is exactly what the Islamic State struck out at last week.

We still don’t have a full picture of ISIS’s involvement in the attacks. The Islamic State immediately claimed credit, though most of the assailants seem to be from France and Belgium. Yet we do know the monolithic, hateful doctrine which guides ISIS. It seeks uniformity of thought and slavish adherence to its interpretation of religion. It allows no room for competing worldviews and seeks to eradicate those who do not fall in line with its dictates.

After the 9/11 attacks, the line “they hate us for our freedoms” became a popular trope. It’s an oversimplification, but these recent attacks, including the killings in Beirut, make it clear that ISIS wants to strike out at tolerant, inclusive societies. It views our ability to live together, to freely associate with one another as a threat to its shuttered, xenophobic philosophies. It wants the world to descend into a bloody conflict between competing clans and its aim here is to make us fear our own civility, which is the source of our greatest strength.

Yet now we have a chance to prove the mettle of our free, open societies. The bloody conflict in Syria has created a refugee crisis. More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country and the number continues to rise. It’s created a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and a challenge for western nations unsure of how to respond. The overwhelming majority of these refugees are people fleeing horrific conditions. Inside the Islamic State they have seen mass killings, public beheadings, and crucifixions. Of course, reasonable, decent people are fleeing in terror from those conditions, hoping to find some spark of humanity elsewhere in the world.

The question it poses to us is, “Will they find that spark of humanity here?” The answer should be, “Absolutely.” Being the better person is not the easy choice and never has been. No matter what our individual backgrounds might be, we all surely learned that doing the right thing often requires resolve in the face of our own trepidations. It is often easier to treat people poorly than to treat them well. Yet ISIS can’t compete with our better angels. It has no answer to cultures that value humanity. It needs us to react with fear, helping to draw cultural battle lines it wishes to exploit.

Obviously there are security questions attached to the flow of refugees. We faced similar questions in the past with Cuban and Vietnamese refugees. We face it now with people fleeing narco criminal violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. It tests us. No one ever said absorbing an influx of refugees is easy. However, as a nation that prides itself on its fundamental goodness, turning away people in need runs counter to our national character.

ISIS believes our claim to decency is a sham. It is counting on us to react to these recent acts of terrorism by refusing refugees. We should prove it wrong. We should make it abundantly clear that our capacity to do the right thing dwarfs their capacity to do horrible, evil things.

Security is not something to be used as a reason to reject people in obvious need of a humanitarian response. The vast majority of these Syrian refugees are fleeing the very things we find so repugnant about the Islamic State: the violence, the radicalism, the absolutism. They need better societies to step forward. Security is something we need to get right while we’re providing the necessary humanitarian response.

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The governors and civic leaders who have made statements about not wanting any Syrian refugees are in the wrong. As a nation with a strong sense of moral consciousness, this is exactly the sort of trying time where the world needs our leadership. A group of terrorists lashed out against free society. America, which is the beacon for all free societies, needs to stand up and show the world how a compassionate nation responds to these brazen attempts to sow discord and fear.

The Paris attacks did not take place in our country, but they did target our culture. If a foreign quasi-state had launched attacks like these on our soil, would we shirk a military response? We would not. We would stand strong. Well, in this case our society needs to stand strong. We need to show that there is a better way. ISIS represents the twisted, evil worldview decent people flee. If so, we need to represent the benevolent worldview decent people run to when they flee oppression. This is a moment where we should not be walling ourselves off from an international crisis. We should be meeting it head on with our trademark humanity, making the case yet again that we are that one indispensable nation.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.