Fear Must Not Dictate Response to Paris Attacks (Editorial, Tennessee Register)

Posted 11/20/2015

The world is weeping once more. Terrorists have again brought their dark ideology to Paris, the City of Light.

Islamic State extremists carried out coordinated attacks in Paris on Friday, Nov. 13, targeting unsuspecting people enjoying the evening at sidewalk cafes, at a soccer game, at a rock concert. They killed at least 129 people and left more than 350 injured, many critically. Pope Francis put into words what most people who love peace were thinking. "I am shaken and pained," the pope said. "These things are difficult to understand, how human beings can do this. ... That is why I am shaken, pained and am praying."

The Islamic State militants and those inspired by their message of revenge and death and hatred, justify their attacks on the innocent by claiming they are acting on behalf of God. The pope rejected their murderous logic. "The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy," Pope Francis said.

The threat that groups like Islamic State pose to human dignity and peace seems obvious to those of us fortunate enough to live in a country founded by people who were fleeing oppression and persecution. The more difficult question is how to answer these threats and protect ourselves without violating the very principles of peace, tolerance, inclusion and freedom that our country values so highly.

That is why it is so troubling to see so many political leaders abandon those principles with so little thought or reflection, lumping together the terrorists with the very people who have suffered the most at their hands. Politicians across the country have called for the federal government to stop accepting Muslim refugees from Syria or other countries where terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda are active.

In Tennessee, one state legislator went so far as to suggest the state round up all refugees from Syria who have resettled here, take them from their homes and their jobs and their communities, and forcibly turn them over to federal officials. The legislator targeted them not because they have done anything wrong or committed any crime, but simply because of where they were born and who they are.

Like millions before them, they have sought refuge in America from violence, war and persecution. They are here not because they share the ideology of the Islamic State but because they are its victims.

Terrorist attacks whenever and wherever they happen raise fears and concerns about how we should protect ourselves in a dangerous world. That is part of the reason that the vetting process for refugees coming to the United States is so extensive. Refugees, many of whom have been living in refugee camps for years, must first be screened and vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If they clear that hurdle, their application is turned over to the U.S. State Department, which conducts its own screening and vetting process with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and multiple U.S. government security agencies as they try to determine who are legitimate refugees and who might be a threat. The process can take a couple of years.

If the Islamic State is intent on carrying out attacks on American soil, there are many easier ways to get operatives here than posing as refugees. The simplest way, as they did in Paris, would be to recruit people who are already American citizens living in the United States.

No vetting process is perfect, that is why it is the responsibility of government officials to constantly review the program to make sure it is working as intended and make changes if necessary. But that vigilance is much different than assuming all Syrians and all Muslims from around the world, including American citizens, are terrorists.

The Catholic Church and Catholic Charities of Tennessee, which has a contract to manage the refugee resettlement program in Tennessee for the federal government, have a long and proud history of compassion for refugees of all faiths and nationalities. From its very beginnings, Catholic Charities has welcomed refugees fleeing political persecution and violence, starting with refugees from Cuba. In the 50 years since, we have met the needs of refugees from around the globe with joy and love.

Through the Refugee Resettlement program operated by the U.S. Government, the agency has been involved with settling officially approved and verified refugees across the state. Those refugees, selected through the U.S. Government processes, come into the country as legal residents and receive limited initial financial support, medical assistance, employment and case management support, English language training and support integrating children into local school systems funded entirely by the federal government. Since 2008, through the Catholic Charities' Tennessee Office for Refugees, the agency has through a contract with the US Health and Human Services Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement, provided contracted services, technical assistance and administrative support, as well as distributed federal funds to the six refugee resettlement agencies across the state that do the actual face to face work of welcoming the refugees.

All of the refugees that are accepted in to the federal program have passed a lengthy multi-agency vetting process well before entering the US.

We remain hopeful that, as long as the vetting process remains strong and is enhanced to meet the changing world situation, we can continue to serve those in need.

We cannot let fear blind us to Christ in the face of the stranger in our land. In fact, the gospel implores us, "Be not afraid." We must choose prudence, not fear, compassion, not rejection, love, not hate.

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