Compare These Maps

Map_11_19_2015 *From CNN.com

SyrianRejection

 

These maps show a shameful correlation, but not a wholly surprising one.   Out of 150,000 or so Syrian refugees in Europe, a very, very small number were disturbed malicious zealots seeking to sow mass slaughter and chaos.

The same could likely be said of ANY large group of people in any place or time.  America has 319 million persons.  Out of that number, there are always a handful of mentally disturbed individuals intent on violence and murder.  For instance, former FBI chief John Douglass estimates that there  between 25 and 50 active serial murderers active in the U.S. at any given time.  Then we have the mass murderers, whose heart-wrenching escapades in schools, theaters, churches etc. we see  far too often.

Any society of sufficient size will contain within it aberrant, murderous, anti-social, psychopathic persons. We’ve seen Jewish and Christian, Hindu and Islamic mass murderers.  We’ve seen them in Russia, China, the US, Brazil, India, France, Britain and nearly every other country and religious affiliation.

We can never hope, given any extrapolation of current abilities in law enforcement, psychological and social sciences, to proactively identify and forestall all violent acts, much less violent thoughts that might occasionally turn to violent acts.

However, as is the tendency of people who have been frightened by a violent action against what they consider their “in group” (say, people of a Western croissant-loving democracy), too often we see people misinterpreting the tiny statistics of mass violent crime, and taking wholly unjustified actions.  This is a normal tendency of the human brain, given our abilities for generalization, empathy and personal identification.  

Once we raise our perspective from the personal to the political bodies that constitute our nation, we see another disturbing trend, albeit one that shouldn’t be too surprising.  Many studies have shown that people who self-identify as conservative are more likely to react to novel stimuli by perceiving a threat, than do those who self-identify as more liberal.  Combine this with a tenancy of both major American parties to currently capitalize on fear responses in their constituents, and it may be plausibly claimed that we live in a society made overly-ripe for fear-mongering and (over-) reactionary grandstanding by political leaders.

The closer natural and historic association between contemporary Republicans and the fostering of a group-identity based on fear, should temper any surprise we feel at the fact that so many Republican governors are capitalizing on irrational fear to play into the hands of a frightened electorate, rather than leading them in a more rational and fact-based manner.  More should take a clue from something George W. Bush did correctly, when he explicitly rejected a growing prejudiced anti-Muslim national sentiment, and indeed fought against it.  President Obama has echoed similar, rational sentiments.  Indeed, our surprise should be tempered, but it should not be absent.  One might reasonably expect our elected officials to lead by example, to represent as a rather famous Republican said, “The better angels of our nature.”  However, in our current political climate where fear is a chief currency, our elected officials are more likely to be cultivators and direct beneficiaries of a culture of over-reaction and fear-mongering rather than opponents of unreason and prejudice.  Similar fear-mongering and its concomitant prejudices have even become prominent refrains among the (unsurprisingly fear-pandering) Republican presidential candidates, who ignore simple facts.  The symptoms of this trend of political capitalization on terror is crossing political party lines, too, as the maps show at last one Democratic governor who has come out rejecting resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S..

These politicians overlook that the stupifyingly vast majority of Syrian refugees are fleeing terror, and are not only innocent, but sorely in need of refuge, protection and a community where the rule of law holds violence well at bay. As a group, its far more accurate to characterize them as moral, hard-working, creative and violence-rejecting human beings rather than potential mass murderers.  Just like it is true to say that concerning the overwhelming majority of human beings in France, the United States, Mexico, and any other country or culture where hateful ideology and brain-washing is not preeminent.  But are we really safe from the fruits of hatred here in the United States?  If we are not, I posit that it’s not because of some handful of Syrian asylum-seekers, but from the germination of the seeds of divisiveness and hate we have sown amongst ourselves.  Too many of our political leaders have gone through the sieve of popular selection with their irrationality, fears and hatreds intact.  And not just intact, but amplified and rewarded.

In a deep sense, these are the politicians we, the electorate, deserve, for they have been born, nurtured and given legitimacy by the darker angels of our nature.  To paraphrase the Bard, the fault lies not in our political stars, but in our selves.  Let those of us who resist the primal appetite for irrational overreaction and the easy hatred of “the other” stand as a bulwark against the encroaching swells of hateful sentiment, and let us do a better job of comforting our fearful brothers and sisters, rather than demonizing them, of lighting candles in darkness rather than cursing it, and of supporting higher ethical and intellectual standards in political culture.  Whenever we engage in the most strident and separatist forms of political tribalism and vilification of those who disagree with us, we contribute to the disease, not the cure.  Looking for common ground, for common ideals, for common humanity is often hard.  It’s harder than making hateful generalizations and sweeping rejection.  Every time we seek to build bunkers and fences rather than bridges, we fortify the armed boundary between enlightenment and primitive emotional reactionary tendencies.  The world is getting better as a historical trend, but it isn’t happening via inevitable natural law.  The world is better because people with a voice and a vote continue to fight for inclusivity, for rational policies, for equality under the law, and for compassionate and respectful treatment of one another.  

I have confidence that Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King were correct and justified in their optimism, and agree with their  shared sentiment, ” I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  Yet my confidence is born not of blind optimism.  Rather, it stems from a recognition that there is not just an arc, but also pendulum of history.  A pendulum that swings left and right, but over many, many cycles and years, precesses ever leftwards toward a liberalization of our laws and attitudes.  Like a grandfather clock on an eastward bound but slow-moving fright train, it is pulled toward a brighter dawn by the constant energies of those who recognize that all people are created equal, that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that chief among these are the rights to life, liberty and happiness.  American citizens and their love for liberty and freedom, coupled with inherent capacities for empathy and optimism, retain enough of a conscious of goodwill, and sufficient political might to keep us on track. I am heartened by the overall course we follow; but that does not mean that we can give up vigilance against the forces that seek to derail and divert us. 

As was once well said, and engraved into our national character:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

 

May the lights of reason and compassion shine evermore within these golden shores.