UPDATED 10:54 A.M.: Scroll to bottom for video of Jeb Bush pushing back on his party's increasing nativist, anti-Muslim rage.
Only a few days ago, former Arkansas governor and low-polling presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told Fox News that "it's time to wake up and smell the falafel."
The governor meant it was time to shut America's borders to Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners in the wake of the Paris attacks. In this call, Huckabee has been joined by virtually all the Republican candidates, especially Donald Trump, who is even musing publicly about creating special identification for Muslims and new, more intrusive surveillance of the same. The actual details of the process by which refugees get vetted, little-known until now, should be enough to scare off most terrorists, given that it takes about two years to make it through all the steps and there are infinitely easier ways to enter the United States. Which isn't to say that refugees shouldn't be vetted for all sorts of reasons—it's just that they are already.
This is happening even as the relationship between Syrian refugees and the Paris attacks has become less clear. While two suspects are unaccounted for, the remaining killers who have been fully identified all were French or Belgian nationals. One was found with a fake Syrian passport and had been sighted on Leros, one of the islands packed by people fleeing Syria. But his exact nationality and identity is unknown at this point (even as the obvious fakeness of his document suggests it would not pass scrutiny of far-tougher UN and US screening inspections rather than overwhelmed Greek outposts). While some of the attackers had traveled to and from Syria and other hotspots in the Middle East, it's not fully clear yet where they were radicalized. More important, though, as even French terrorism experts acknowledge, the principal problem in France is not infiltration per se by outsiders as it is economic, social, and political conditions in France that create "home-grown terrorists."
But since Huckabee's falafel jibe, other would-be Republican presidents have gone to the mattresses to excoriate the idea that Syrian refugees should find a soft shoulder in these United States. There's no constitutional right to refugee status, they say, and wouldn't the displaced prefer to be closer to home on the off-chance that things will settle down soon? Haven't we accepted enough already, maybe too many, and it's clear that Obama really hates America and wants to see it destroyed before he leaves office anyway. It's not as if the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy have contributed to the region's instability or anything.
Generally hostile to immigration under the best of circumstances, characters such as Ted Cruz allowed that Syrian Christians might be OK, especially kids, while Chris Christie bid down compassion to the zero limit when he declared even orphaned toddlers were too dangerous to allow. Even after it's become clear that it takes years and requires the highest level of safety checks imaginable for refugees entering the United States, the GOP has stood fast to saying no to accepting Syrian refugees.
Though a critic of U.S. foreign policy and largely responsible for putting the kibosh on President Obama's plans to bomb and/or invade Syria a few years ago, Rand Paul has called for closing borders not just to Syrian refugees but to people entering the country from places that haven't required visas for decades. Paul pointed to two Iraqis living in his hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky as proof that refugees engage in terror plots. Neither was accused of plotting actions within the United States, but in 2011, they conspired with undercover FBI agents to send weapons to Iraq (it remains unclear whether the FBI first approached them). A third refugee, from Uzbekistan, was arrested in Boise, Idaho in 2013 on terrorism-related charges; again, he was being handled by FBI agents too, suggesting that the J. Edgar Hoover's legacy agency may well be behind many of the terror plots we read about in the papers.
In investigating the question as to whether the U.S. refugee program provided easy cover for terrorists seeking to enter the United States, the Washington Post's Fact Checker writes
A State Department spokesperson said of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11, “only about a dozen — a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian.” The spokesperson declined to specify what exactly the security concerns were, how many of the dozen were arrested, and for what charges.
This is more than the zero number Reason reported a few days ago, for sure, but nothing justifying the freakout evinced by Republican presidential candidates. Especially given the fact that neither of the two known plots came close to fruition. After all, they were being managed by government agents.
When it comes to GOP overreaction to the Paris attacks, Donald Trump, who has surged ahead again in recent polls, tops everyone else. From a Yahoo interview with the billionaire developer:
“We’re going to have to do things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Trump would not rule out warrantless searches in his plans for increased surveillance of the nation’s Muslims, Yahoo reported Thursday.
He also remained open toward registering U.S. Muslims in a database or giving them special identification identifying their faith, the news outlet added.
“We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump continued. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
In pushing such measures, Trump not only has the support of a majority of Americans (who are against resettling Syrian refugees by a two-to-one margin in recent surveys) and a majority of Republican governors, but also the support of small-town mayors such as David Bowers, the Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia. Bowers went so far as to invoke Franklin Roosevelt's internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II in expressing his fears of Syrian refugees:
I'm reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.
Such a statement is not simply stupid but spectacularly stupid to anyone who can google information about the extent of Japan's empire circa 1941. And even then, Bowers reveals more than he knows when he likens the need to quarantine America from a new race- or ethnic-based peril.
As Roger Baldwin, the longtime head of the ACLU, wrote in his introduction to a 1967 history of Japanese internment, "There was not one single instance of sabotage or espionage [among Japanese Americans], despite all the charges and suspicions." On the flip side, there was not a movement to intern German and Italian Americans of recent vintage on the East Coast despite many public displays of ethnic and ideologoical sympathy for their mother countries. For christ's sake, the German American Bund sold out Madison Square Garden in 1939. And as historian Eric Muller wrote in his daming 2004 Reason review of Michelle Malkin's truly awful In Defense of Internment,
Over the last several decades, historians have shown that the chief causes of the Japanese American internment were ingrained anti-Asian racism, nativist and economic pressures from groups in California that had long wanted the Japanese gone, and the panic of wartime hysteria. As the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians said in its 1981 report to Congress, "The broad historical causes which shaped [the decisions to relocate and detain Japanese Americans] were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
Muller concludes that it's always a mistake to think that one either uses pure rationality or pure emotionalism when setting public policy, especially during times of terror and fear. "Racism and hysteria are irrational lenses through which people see their world, including its military threats."
We're clearly in the grip of hysteria right now, only a few days after a horrific bombing of a city that is in its way as emblematic of modernity and "the West" (what ISIS or al Qaeda would call "the far enemy") as New York or London.
Updated at 10:54 A.M. Jeb Bush sings a different tune on CNBC: