It didn’t take long for the stampede to start.
By Sunday, even as stunned Parisians were still placing flowers at the sites of the terrorist atrocities that claimed more than a hundred lives and injured hundreds more, a couple of American governors had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome on their turf.
Within a few days, more than half the nation’s governors had signed on. (Never mind that governors have no authority to control borders.) Republican presidential candidates rushed to keep up, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pledging a religious test that would admit only Syrian Christians. By Thursday, the House had passed a bill with such stringent vetting standards that it would be virtually impossible to admit any Syrian refugees.
How depressing. Whatever happened to political leadership?
Yes, yes, Americans are shocked and frightened — and understandably so. The savage attacks on unarmed Parisians were carried out by affiliates of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL), which has established a stronghold in Syria, and were calculated to produce horror, to instill fear, to provoke panic. The point of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize.
And since fear is such a powerful emotion — with the capacity to overwhelm reason — it’s no surprise that the American public is now exhibiting a deep reluctance to take in Syrians displaced by war, even though many of them are also targets of ISIL’s brutality. A Bloomberg survey conducted in the wake of the Paris attacks showed that 53 percent of Americans oppose granting asylum to Syrian refugees.
But the proper duty of political leaders is to, well, lead. They shouldn’t pander to our fears or inflame our basest instincts. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of them chose to do.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, desperate to raise his standing in the GOP presidential race, was more shameful than his rivals: “I don’t think that orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point.” Even for a governor who prides himself on in-your-face provocations, that’s pretty despicable.
But some pols managed to sink even lower. One Tennessee legislator, Rep. Glen Casada, proposed sending the National Guard to round up any Syrian refugees who’ve been resettled in his state and ship them out. Casada has clearly refused to learn from some disgraceful episodes in the nation’s history.
In 1939, for example, the United States, along with Cuba and Canada, denied entry to more than 900 Jews aboard the MS St. Louis seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. The refugees were forced to return to Europe, where, historians estimate, about a quarter of them later perished in death camps.
As historian Peter Shulman, a professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, recently pointed out, antipathy toward European Jews ran high even as the Nazis began their campaign of extermination. He cited a 1938 poll showing that 67 percent of Americans opposed bringing in “German, Austrian and other” political refugees.
The historical comparison isn’t perfect. The U.S. had not fully emerged from the Great Depression, and fear of economic competition was certainly a factor. But so was anti-Semitism — just as an anti-Muslim xenophobia is now. Among some, including President Roosevelt, there was also the suspicion that Nazi agents might be hiding among Jewish refugees. Sound familiar?
The nation’s hysteria didn’t stop with the refusal to aid the Jews aboard the St. Louis. Roosevelt also signed an executive order to round up more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent and hold them in internment camps; 62 percent of them were American citizens, some with sons serving in the U.S. armed forces. Decades later, the U.S. government officially apologized and acknowledged that the camps resulted from, among other things, “race prejudice.”
History, then, offers some powerful lessons about fear and the shameful reactions it can provoke. So let’s all keep our heads.
The Obama administration already has a thorough and painstaking vetting process for Syrian refugees that can take as long as two years. Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. But it sets a high bar for entry while also preserving our ability to assist those who most need our help.
Isn’t that what American exceptionalism is all about?
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Migrants and refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from theTurkish coast to Lesbos October 11, 2015. REUTERS/Fotis Plegas G