When terrorists strike, the sole responsibility for the resulting carnage rests solely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Attacking people who are not directly (and often, not even indirectly) involved in a perceived dispute is cowardly, horrible, and inhuman. Tragically, New Yorkers and the world saw this played out on September 11th, 2001. It goes without saying that nobody wants to see anything of its kind repeated ever again anywhere in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. The Bush and the Obama administrations should get some credit for ensuring that no major terrorist attacks have taken place on American soil over the course of the last fifteen years. Now, that is about to change unless we reverse course as a country and begin to exercise, what I call, sensible empathy.
President Trump’s executive order to ban visitors and refugees from seven Muslim countries has already created a tense, fearful and angry climate in many segments of American society. Even more troubling is the assessment of experts that it is sure to serve as recruiting tool for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Nothing is more threatening to uncompromising theocracies than a society based on free exchanges of ideas, critical inquiry and and unfettered integration of all immigrants, including Muslims, into mainstream Western style democracies. Such practices not only question the often politically influenced dogmas that masquerade as religious imperatives, but often serve as a potent, if gradual, modifying force upon religion itself. While this vital moderating effect of American Muslims on Islam itself across the globe may not be appreciated by the current political elite, the above warning of various experts must be clear to those shaping policy at the White House. If so, it begs the question as to why some people in the administration, including the president himself, are pushing this initiative, defeated by the courts, in the name of “keeping our country safe.”
Clearly, blindly admitting masses of people into any country–no matter how much in need they are–is not a sensible course of action. But that has never been the case in the U.S. where refugees, even according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, undergo a lengthy process of vetting. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Europe where ISIS has reportedly been able to plant sleeper cells within the masses of migrants. The images of thousands of people stranded at various borders in subhuman conditions understandably moved many in Europe to open up their borders to allow for the free and unfettered circulation of these masses towards their destination: Germany. History will pass judgment on how wise or unwise Germany’s refugee policy has been based on what those new Germans will do with their lives.
So, how does sensible empathy enter the picture? We exercise sensible empathy when we look at everyone in need, first and foremost, as a human being worthy of our support and help and resist the temptation of projecting our preconceived notions of who they ought to be solely based on their countries of origin. This, however, doesn’t mean placing blind faith in the goodness of all people. Clearly, our impulse for empathy must be tempered with judiciousness and circumspection. Practically speaking, we need to allow law enforcement to do its job. Detecting and neutralizing threats can only be done by correctly identifying the sources of such threats.
It is myopic, unreasonable and mean to expect any long term positive results from arbitrarily drawing a circle on a map and saying that all of the citizens of any given country are somehow inherently suspects. It is in no way designed to protect the safety of Americans, no matter what the president claims. In fact, it will do the exact opposite by undermining a basic American principle: fairness. The implementation of the new executive order will lead to senseless discomfort, pain, and even death in the case of refugees stranded in countries with horrible human rights records.
Sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, aunts, and uncles of people with valid visas arbitrarily prevented from entering the country could be expected to experience a cascade of emotions. Disbelief and insecurity will give way to resentment, anger, and rage. It is my fear that in a small number of unstable or unsuccessful individuals already prone to ISIS propaganda, these emotions may be the final push towards the unthinkable and inexcusable road towards committing acts of terrorism. If that were to happen, the president would surely use it in predictable ways to claim that he was right. A larger terrorist attack may even lead to President Trump to declare martial law as did Abraham Lincoln in 1864 or to take other drastic actions designed to curtail the freedoms currently afforded by the constitution to everyone living in the United States and cement his position.
Sensible empathy means being able to assess correctly the proportions of benefits and dangers in immigrants (and in our current climate, specifically of Muslim immigrants). Every time there has been a large wave of immigration into the U.S., resentment and opposition have also materialized with drastic effects. Countless numbers of Jews could have been saved from the the horrors of Nazi Germany but for the deliberate effort of American policy to exclude them all throughout the 1930s and 40s. FDR declared that Jewish refugees could threaten national security and successfully closed the door to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe, thereby sealing their fate.
As it turns out, American Jews contributed in unmeasurable ways to American culture from the arts to the sciences and beyond. In light of those contributions, the argument that Jews should have been kept out of the country because some of them or their descendants would surely commit crimes, even if true, (see Bernie Madoff whose grandfather immigrated from Poland or the much earlier Jewish figures of organized crime in the 1940s and 50s, all of whom were direct descendants of immigrants) is patently absurd.
Why is it any more reasonable to claim that because some Muslim immigrants and their descendants living in the U.S. may pose a potential national security risk, we should exclude all of them? Just take a look at some American Muslims and you will see a diverse group comprised of doctors, food cart vendors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, electricians, scientists, outstanding (or struggling) students, and everything else in between. Does excluding all Muslims from American soil because some may commit a terrorist act sound sensible to you? Shouldn’t we, instead, work on sustaining an inviting and positive climate for American Muslims with equal opportunities for success, instead, and couple it with effective law enforcement measures? Even if the most draconian rules and laws were to be implemented, do you really believe that a determined terrorist would not be able to circumvent whatever system is put in place and enter the country illegally? Alternately, do you really believe that native American citizens cannot become active terrorists? If you believe the most efficient way is to eliminate all risks by eliminating all Muslims from America then you’d better be prepared to deny all of their contributions to America as well and say goodbye to Dr. Oz or the much less well-known but equally influential Muslim American architect, Fazlur Rahman Khan (just to mention two American Muslims who have contributed so much).
As a teacher at Stuyvesant High School, I can attest to the fact that some of the greatest Americans will come from the ranks of the sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants (not to mention all the sons and daughters of Chinese, Korean or Japanese immigrants). They already are some of the most intelligent, caring and positive individuals I have ever had the privilege to teach. I hope we let all of them blossom into the kind of doctors, scientists, artist, and thinkers America so desperately needs by rejecting those senseless, unnecessary, and dangerous exclusionary policies the current administration is so hell-bent on promoting.
Sensible empathy, now more than ever, is essential if we want to preserve some of our most basic American values. Not only our way of life and our country’s future but also our very sense of humanity depends on it.