The 19th century American author Christian Nestell Bovee wrote, "We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them."
I know that I resemble that remark.
Tennesseans' fear, and the lack of knowledge that drives it, was on display at a joint State and Local Government Committee hearing at the General Assembly on Wednesday, where a dais-full of legislators sought illumination on issues surrounding the resettlement of refugees in Tennessee.Fueled by non-stop cable coverage of the surge in refugees fleeing civil war in Syria; the violent terrorist attacks on Nov. 13 in Paris; the startling attack on Dec. 2 by an apparently radicalized American couple in San Bernardino, Calif.; and the incessant bombast from presidential candidates about how only they can solve the "problem," Tennesseans have been reaching out to their legislators and other government officials in unprecedented numbers.
They are anxious to hear reassurance from those in charge.
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, asked David R. Shedd, former Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, "Is there anything we can do to assure the safety of our citizens, our constituents?"
Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, pushed Shedd repeatedly for a "yes" or "no" answer as to whether he could tell his constituents that they were safe.
"Senator," Shedd said, "we should not give false assurances."
He said there was no way to reduce our risk to zero. Well, that's a blinding glimpse of the obvious.
Shedd, and several other witnesses, did detail the exhaustive process that refugees go through to earn resettlement in one of the 27 countries that accept them - the background checking process to earn entrance to the U.S. is the most vigorous and takes 18-24 months to complete. Most refugees who resettle to the U.S. have been waiting 10 years to get here.
But, as Shedd pointed out, they are refugees because they are fleeing difficult, often untenable, situations that make vetting and verification processes far from foolproof.
David Purkey, assistant commissioner of Tennessee Safety and Homeland Security, presented a lot of information to the legislators showing the terrorist threat since 9/11 was mostly "homegrown violent extremism," with no acts of terror committed by those arriving in the U.S. as refugees.
Tracy, who helped write the 2011 state legislation that governs the refugee resettlement process in Tennessee, defended the committee's questions.
"We are a compassionate people, but we live in a different world than 2011," he said.
Assimilation is the best defense
After outlining the challenges, Shedd made a fascinating observation:
"The best way to reduce the risk of terrorism is to assimilate refugees quickly. One of the lessons that we have learned, and that we should be very proud of as Americans, is that we welcome refugees and quickly integrate them into our communities."
You don't see that in the other countries that accept refugees, he said.
Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator in the Tennessee Office for Refugees, added during her testimony, "A great way to prevent radicalization is to make refugees feel welcome."
Johnson's office coordinates with the four agencies that resettle refugees in Tennessee. Those offices are located in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis, and almost all refugees are settled in those four communities. Occasionally, a refugee will be settled in another county, but only if they are joining a family member there, she said.
"The communities where refugees are resettled," Johnson said, "are incredibly supportive of the programs and the refugees. All our negative calls come from areas where refugees are not being resettled."
The undercurrent of fear in the legislators' questions was obvious, and seemed irrational to me as I watched the hearing.
We embrace the inherent and demonstrated risk that an unfettered adherence to the Second Amendment entails, but seek impossible assurances about America's policy of sanctuary for those fleeing oppressive regimes and terrorism?
What comes from the hearing?
Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Co-Executive Director Stephanie Teatro, who attended the meeting, said, "After today's hearing, the question is not whether the screening process for refugees is rigorous or thorough, but whether legislators will continue to exploit the fears of their constituents by casting doubt and suspicion on refugees who themselves are fleeing terror."
We'll have to see what bills legislators introduce in January to appease their constituents' fears.