The right thing to do
It's not often that Vermont state politics and international affairs overlap, but we saw a rare instance of that this past week over the situation involving Syrian refugees.
It's difficult not to feel enormous sympathy for the hundred of thousands, if not millions, of former residents of Syria who have been displaced by the chaos that has enveloped their country since 2011. Huge numbers of ordinary citizens, with the same hopes and aspirations as people the world over, have been forced out of their homes by a vicious and confusing — and now three sided, with the emergence of the terror group ISIS — war, which has claimed more than a quarter million lives, and shows little sign of abating anytime soon.
Then, a few months ago, large numbers of these refugees, along with others from places like Afghanistan and Libya, began fleeing to Europe, on foot, by boat, by whatever means possible, often with little more than what they could carry with them. It was a heart wrenching site, which at the same time posed multiple problems for the nations now thrust into the role of "hosts." How to house, feed and acculturate them into profoundly different societies from the ones they were fleeing merged with the obvious, and rational, security concerns. If there was ever a convenient way for terrorists to slip into Europe under the security radar, this was seemingly it. And sadly, in the tragedies that rocked Paris and the world on Nov. 13, there is some evidence to suggest that at least one of the perpetrators entered France by that circuitous channel.
In the wake of those attacks, the debate has been renewed over here about whether or not the U.S. should accept any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees we had originally agreed to take as our "share." That number is embarrassingly small. While a case could be made to some extent that the factors that have sundered Syria, a once relatively prosperous and more or less secular country which labored under an authoritarian leader and a political system far from democratic were not of our making, it would benefit the U.S. to accept more of these folks, many of whom are leaving middle class lifestyles behind and are just as turned off by the lunacies of ISIS rants and actions as anyone else. For us, there's a pragmatic gain to be had, as well as the moral dimension to be served.
A few weeks ago, we suggested in this space that Vermont should seek to bring more than a handful of the refugees here, as we have a stagnant population that would benefit from an infusion of newcomers. That stance remains the same today. There's nothing but upside for the state of Vermont to welcome as many of these folks as we can, to fill up under-used classroom space, provide a boost to our economy, and in time, enjoy the fruits of their work ethic and entrepreneurial drive.
It's not everyday we've found ourselves on the same side of a policy question as Gov. Peter Shumlin, but here is a case where we do. The governor struck all the right notes when he declared a few days ago that Vermont stood ready to accept its fair share of the 10,000 refugees and to express his disappointment that other states were betraying some of our most fundamental values — starting with extending a helping hand to people in need — out of fear and paranoia that among the legitimate refugees there might lurk a would-be terrorist or two.
Granted, there might. And that's why we have a pretty robust screening and vetting process that such refugees need to endure. Could a bad apple or two slip through? Possibly. But if they do, the chances are pretty high they will be tailed by the FBI or another national security agency, joining the less than twenty — yes, that's not a typo — Syrians or people who have been there currently under surveillance here.
In any event, the number projected to arrive here is so small as to be ridiculous. Maybe 100 or so is what's in store, assuming the knee-jerk fear so unbecoming of our nation doesn't shift that into pause mode. That's better than none, but we could do far more.
As bad as the hesitation over accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees is at the moment, it could get worse, if the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party is successful at attaching this restriction in some way to a federal funding bill which, if defeated, would throw the government into shut down. The clock is ticking on that Dec. 11 deadline. Even more depressing is the vote taken in the U.S. House of Representatives last week to halt our acceptance of the 10,000, which the president has vowed to — correctly — veto. But enough members of the House voted for the measure to override such a veto. Hopefully in the U.S. Senate, the measure will fail, or maybe the political passions will cool in time to slow the train down.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, it's logical to worry anew about terrorist activities. Memories of 9/11 are after all, not that old. ISIS and other terror networks that see their goals as advanced in some misbegotten way by killing innocent people must be crushed. The time has come to take the war they have been seeking directly to them. But we do ourselves no service by withdrawing the welcome mat to the latest group of immigrants to this immigrant country, who want to come here to seek the same better life that generations of earlier immigrants did. The only thing to fear, as Franklin Roosevelt once famously said, is fear itself.
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