Rationalizing bigotry, failing in leadership
Like just about everyone, I followed the news coverage of the terrorist activities in Paris with great interest over the weekend. It was all the more significant to me because I’ve stayed a number of times in the neighborhood where much of the activity took place, including several times on Boulevard Voltaire, where the Bataclan Theatre is located.
While there are visitors and hotels just about everywhere in Paris, this is not as much of a tourist area as some other neighborhoods are. A couple of metro stops up from Place de la Republique, where evening news anchors and reporters are using the monument as a backdrop for their on-the-scene reporting this week, there is a neighborhood with a lot of people from the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. I was happy to use the cheap internet service in a little storefront where I was the only person who wasn’t a Turk or Arab. There were kabobs, baklava and simit in store windows. The area reminded me a little of being in Istanbul, while still being unmistakably Paris – just not the Paris of Louis Vuitton or Coco Chanel.
Of course, this isn’t the first terrorist incident in Paris — not even this year – and there have been tensions in France and in Paris for many years. In 2005, I was there during some riots that were going on in the suburbs which went on for weeks and resulted in a state of emergency being declared. There was a lot of property damage as cars and buildings were torched. People were told not to take the train out to the airport because it had stops in troubled areas but of course, I did. The three policemen in my car ended up roughing up an Arab-looking young man along the way.
Really, when I think back on it, a lot of fairly out-of-the ordinary things have happened in places that I’ve visited over the years. A hotel where we stayed a couple of times in Rio de Janeiro ended up in a shootout and hostage situation involving a drug gang, with a woman bystander being killed. I can’t say that I found it that hard to believe, since we had witnessed a pretty serious exchange of automatic weapons fire up the road from our balcony during one of our visits. Back in Wausau, that place would have spent a month in yellow police tape. In Rio, it was all in a night’s work. A McDonald’s across from a restaurant where we ate in Istanbul was blown up by some kind of carry-in bomb after we visited. In the Victory Monument area of Bangkok, where I’ve stayed a few times, there were riots, explosions and firefights in 2010 during a prolonged period of unrest that left 91 dead and 2,100 injured. In August, somebody opened fire on the Thalys train that I’ve ridden a number of times between Amsterdam and Paris through Brussels. I’ve walked out of a blast-darkened tube station in London and been to the pre and post 9-11 sites in New York and Washington DC.
Of course, none of this stuff happened while I was there and that is the whole point. The chances of this kind of thing involving me personally are just about zero, so I don’t worry much about it. I know that some planes are going to crash or even blow up, but I don’t expect to ever be on one of them. I would go to Paris tomorrow. It’s not a matter of being insensitive, or having courage or anything else. It’s about probability. It’s not about having no risk whatsoever, but having relatively little.
Unfortunately, some are using this recent, tragic event to foment fear and they are fanning the flames of bigotry. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of the people nodding in agreement with the idea that we can have no risk at all because of what happened in Paris may be some of the same people who wanted to change the name of French fries to “freedom fries” when the French didn’t agree to go to our war in Iraq, but they’re figuratively waving French flags today.
“In light of these horrific and tragic attacks, our first priority must be to protect our citizens. Along with governors across the country, I have deep concerns about the Obama Administration’s plan to accept 10,000 or more Syrian refugees, especially given that one of the Paris attackers was reportedly a Syrian refugee. In consultation with our Adjutant General, who also serves as my Homeland Security Advisor, it is clear that the influx of Syrian refugees poses a threat,” said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a statement Monday, as he tried to make the case for preventing any Syrian refugees from entering Wisconsin.
I agree that it’s a threat, but it’s a relatively small threat. The people who are dealing with a real threat are the refugees. They’re fleeing an evil that has robbed them of friends, family members, livelihoods and their homes. They’ve got nothing. And it’s not enough of a threat to us to justify throwing all of those people under the bus because we should value our safety more than doing what we can to assist in what is a very desperate situation. In the process, we have the opportunity to secure energetic entrepreneurs, workers that we will need in the years to come, bright students, future specialists and the appreciation that naturally arises from being a friend in need and deed. This is not only the right thing to do in the short term, but even more so in the long term. And sometimes the right thing to do involves some cost and risk. Some of the same people who will invariably and soberly acknowledge that fact when it comes to participating in a war seem to have a real blind spot about that when it comes to advancing peaceful ventures, don’t they?
What I fear far more than a stray radical among throngs of innocents who know a level of suffering most of us can never imagine is the thought of our country abandoning its ideals. I fear giving countless millions around the world another excuse to hate us. I fear what happens when so many people – many of whom have nothing to lose — see an image of America that is being formed for us abroad by loud, small-minded leaders who pander to the lowest common denominator of religious bigotry among us to try to win elections and consolidate power with fear and isolationism in the name of public safety. This is not leadership and it is not worthy of a nation that the world looks to for exactly that.
Added: A Refugee Crisis Made in America: