This past week marked the 52nd anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination. On that fateful day of November 22, 1963, Massachusetts’ most beloved son was supposed to deliver a speech to members of the Dallas Citizens Council and the Dallas Assembly. He intended to congratulate the community’s leadership in advancing learning by establishing the Research Center of the Southwest, today popularly known as the University of Texas at Dallas. More notably, President Kennedy intended to advance his foreign policy stance, which eerily rings with relevance in the confusing aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mali, Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, and Egypt and amid the vicious, and frankly, dehumanizing debate over the United States’ paltry commitment to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Based on the transcript of his planned speech, President Kennedy would have eloquently proclaimed:
“Ignorance and misinformation can… handicap this country’s security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”
At no time in our nation’s history have these words of wisdom resonated more clearly. Many segments of our country’s population are still reeling in the aftermath of an historic economic recession, and economic inequality in the US is the second highest in the world. Largely disastrous interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have sapped our country of money and resources, have exasperated our national will to intervene in overseas affairs, and have seemingly complicated and proliferated terrorism, rather than exterminating it. Our sentiments, mind you, don’t even start to take into account how U.S.-led sanctions and wars inflicted incomprehensible and counterproductive destruction, under-reported loss of civilian life, and state and societal dismantlement upon the Afghan, Iraqi, and Libyan people. To complicate matters further, the attacks in Paris are also unintended consequences of Cold War-era strategic mistakes that were once heralded as successes, including President Ronald Reagan’s decision to support Osama Bin Laden against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Therefore, after decades of insufficient, questionable, and impactful economic and foreign policies, it is understandable why so many Americans are apprehensive and confused about the Paris Attacks, feel betrayed by their government, and are easily scared of Syrian refugees, who are victims of the world’s most unprecedented humanitarian crisis since World War II.
Nevertheless, amid such “frustrations and irritations,” President Kennedy would have desired that leadership inspired and guided by “learning and reason” prevail. In the context of Syrian refugees, this first starts with the humanization of Syrian refugees, who are often stereotyped as helpless human beings or as religious radicals with the propensity to commit terrorism. Second, this requires an acknowledgement that the fight against ISIS requires the acceptance and careful integration of Syrian refugees because doing so is an affront to ISIS’s strategy and wishes.
First, who are Syria’s 4.3 million refugees? Like us, they are simply parents, children, and grandparents seeking dignity, safety, work, and bread for their families. They are doctors, engineers, teachers,farmers, artists, musicians, and athletes who, unlike Rand Paul’s assertions, have only understood how to work hard precisely to avoid relying on the deficient safety net that epitomized Syria’s pre-war state welfare system. Syria’s refugees consist of families whose strong will to survive persists despite lacking the comforts of a basic bed.
Syria’s refugees are the people whom the international community has collectively failed and punished for refraining from war. The United States, the West, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar continue to lavish money and arms to either Bashar al-Assad, whose military has perpetrated the most civilian casualties, or to Syria’s other hardly-humane opposition warlords. Amid the perverse war economy, Syrian refugees became misfits in their own country and have endured intolerable conditions in Lebanese and Jordanian refugee camps that are severely underfunded.
Equally worrisome is that opportunistic American and Western migrants have posed more danger to Syrians than any Syrian refugee could ever imagine to pose in the US. Of some 25,000+ foreign fighters that have traveled to Syria and Iraq in recent years, 250 Americans and at least 5000 Europeans have joined ISIS. Few Americans know that our export of migrants, in concert with belated American-Turkish efforts to seal the Syrian-Turkish border, has exacerbated the living hell experienced by many Syrians.
Last April, in northern Aleppo, ISIS burned humanitarian care packages consisting of chicken and other halal food addressed to Syria’s starving population because the chickens were killed in the US. In the meantime, Syrians living in ISIS’s capital, Raqqa, suffer unimaginable atrocities and human rights violations and report “a state of confusion and panic.” People caught smoking, listening to music, or even wearing skinny jeans risk imprisonment. Women under the age of fifty are barred from leaving Raqqa and travelling elsewhere, particularly Assad regime-held areas. Any woman who is caught wearing makeup or not dressed according to strict dress codes face physical punishment, while homosexuals face death.
By contrast, according to a State Department spokesperson, of the nearly 785,000 refugees who have been admitted into the US since 9/11, “only about a dozen – a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees – have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian.” Perhaps, it’s the Syrian people – not us – who should be the ones asking for a cessation of migrants!
If the plight of Syrian refugees, tragedy-stricken France’s gesture to accept 30,000 refugees, or a stringent vetting process for post-9/11 refugees aren’t convincing enough, perhaps a little insight into the war against ISIS can help. Aaron Zelin, the Richard Borrow fellow at The Washington Institute, has compiled an impressive collection of ISIS testimonials demonstrating that the terrorist organization, in fact, does not want Syrian refugees leaving Syria for non-Muslims countries like the US because it would undermine the so-called Islamic State’s image as a safe refuge for all Muslims. In analyzing a September 16 video released by ISIS, Zelin notes that the speaker discusses “how Muslims should not mix or fraternize with infidels, and various members of the public are shown expressing their surprise at those who leave for Europe. They ask what they are hoping to find there: will they even be able to worship in mosques?” Furthermore, the ISIS speaker says that any Syrians who leave for Europe will face forced conversion to Christianity and would be better off staying in the so-called Islamic State.
Suddenly, the fear-mongering advocated by prominent Republican politicians against Syria’s most vulnerable dangerously appear counter-productive. It simply plays into ISIS’s desire to divide us! ISIS’s strategy is to retain as much potential manpower in its underpopulated domain as possible in order to pursue its war objectives against the Syrian and Iraqi people and the rest of the world. Furthermore, it seeks to exacerbate any divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims – a tactic that underlies the terrorist organization’s recruitment strategy.
Therefore, the “seemingly swift and simple” solutions President Kennedy warned against are hardly a prescription in addressing our national security concerns against ISIS. Closing our borders and abdicating American leadership during a global humanitarian crisis is too convenient. American- and Russian-led airstrikes in Raqqa, which are crippling a population already suffering from ISIS’s rule, and decimating oil targets used to heat Syrian households during the country’s difficult winters, also do not replace a long-term strategy that entails diplomacy, empowerment, refuge, and economic development. Never were the hearts and minds of human beings ever won by simultaneously pummeling their homes and slandering their honor.
On that fateful day in Dallas, President Kennedy would have proclaimed, “We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.” Let’s hope so, Mr. President. Let’s sure hope so.