When Your Country Needs a Slap Upside the Head

I just heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. The lead-in was “Some Tennesseans want to take refugees from Syria and turn them into refugees from Tennessee.”

Awesome. Politicians in my home state, arguably one of the friendliest in the nation (and definitely one of the most Christian, for what that’s worth) want to “bar” Syrian refugees. In fact, the leader of the state’s House Republican caucus, Glenn Casada, wants to “round them up” and interrogate them.

“I’m just sounding the alarm. And I didn’t know what else to do,” Casada said. “They’re going to sneak into our country and they’re going to attack us.”

So, basically, he’s freaking out. (Watch much Fox News, Glenn?) And he would like to immediately enact a policy based on his fear because he doesn’t “know what else to do”

That’s pretty much what happened in World War II with the Japanese on the west coast. There was no evidence that they presented a threat in any way. But people were freaking out, so the Japanese were rounded up and placed in internment camps for the duration of the war. This may have alleviated some people’s fear, but it didn’t actually make anyone safer. Is there anyone alive today who thinks this was a good plan?

I’m not going to discuss the finer points of the refugee clearance process. Either you believe that the people who are trained and paid to clear these folks can do the job, or you don’t. If you watch a lot of Fox News you probably don’t believe the federal government is capable of anything other than sending you a Social Security check, so there’s no point in trying to convince you otherwise.

One thing IS clear though, and that is that we in the U.S. have a completely different situation than in Europe. I have some personal experience with this, having lived in Europe for several years now.

In Europe, the borders are porous by design. There is no giant ocean separating the continent from the Middle East and North Africa. It is difficult, but not at all impossible, to get into Europe. Once you are there, it is relatively easy to cross borders between countries that are, after all, smaller than most U.S. states.

It is not so easy to actually get citizenship and integrate into European society. This is one reason that most of the terrorists there are “homegrown,” having become radicalized after living for decades in European countries. Most of these guys fit a profile: underemployed with petty criminal records. Like mass shooters anywhere, they are simply angry losers. That is NOT an excuse for going psycho and shooting up Paris. I’m just saying, religion is merely a vehicle for their anger—as Waco conspiracy theories were for Timothy McVeigh, to cite one of our own homegrown examples.

America is the opposite: it’s much harder to get into the country, but once you are in, it’s easier to integrate and be accepted. “American” is not a color or an ethnicity. It is more or less a legal term, when you get right down to it. People have their prejudices, of course, but aside from the conspiracy theorist birther crowd, there aren’t many Americans who would claim that a person with an American passport is not, in fact, American, no matter where they come from or look like. That’s why we have unique terms like “first-generation American” or “Mexican-American.”

Some European countries are moving toward this more flexible identity, but anyone who has lived here a while knows that most of them still have a long way to go—and some aren’t even trying.

Also, unlike many European countries, we are not a “Christian nation.” We are a nation with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. This is not the same thing. Christianity is the most prevalent religion, but you can worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you want to. However, that freedom of religion means that you cannot be required to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Freedom of religion in America means tolerating other people’s religions and not imposing your religion on others. We don’t always get it right, but it is the underlying principle at work in our system.

France is theoretically a secular country, which in its case means that public displays of religion are banned. Unfortunately, this includes doing silly, intolerant things like banning headscarves and Halal food in public schools that annoy the heck out of Muslims for no good reason. Meanwhile, because no country in Europe can truly escape its Catholic heritage, just like in the countries in which the Catholic church is the official church, most public holidays are Catholic holy days, funny thing. So, secular doesn’t mean tolerant. And Muslims feel excluded from the culture.

Again, NOT an excuse for going psycho. I’m just saying, Nashville is not Paris. (One notable difference is that Americans shoot each other all the time, unlike the French. Apparently, we are perfectly fine with random shootings as long as only a few people die at any given time.)

All this relates to risk. My fellow Foreign Service spouse, Donna Gorman, wrote a piece for Time magazine on how we as Foreign Service parents learn to assume a certain degree of risk (it’s really good, too, go read it!) Her article made me think about the risks we assume for our kids, but also for ourselves.

Every post that we serve at overseas is rated for potential threats in several areas, including crime and terrorism. We can see this rating before we bid on posts. So, with every bid, we are assessing risk.

Then we go to post, and we live our lives. We make decisions every day that are based on risk assessment in the current environment. Should I take public transportation? Should I wear my Embassy badge outside of work? Should I drive on X road to visit X beautiful and interesting town even though carjacking happens all the time on that route? Should I take my purse to the market or keep my money under my coat? Should I work in the building with the big, fat American flag on it? (Oh wait, my husband doesn’t have a choice about that.)

Should I live and travel in Europe despite its major cities clearly being soft targets for terrorism?

In the Foreign Service, we get used to making decisions based on risk, not fear. This becomes a habit. We know that sometimes we need to take a deep breath, step back, and overcome our lizard-brain reactions to events. Because when lizard-brain takes over in a situation, it never ends well. As a long-term strategy for overseas living, it’s a non-starter. As a long-term strategy for life it’s not much better.

As a governing strategy, it’s downright dangerous.

Right now, a whole lot of people in the U.S. are letting their lizard-brains take over. They are not considering how unlikely it is that a Syrian refugee who managed to get through our screening processes would be a terrorist. They are not looking at the facts of the situation. They are not assessing actual risk.

As of today, 26 states have now “barred” Syrian refugees. OK, first of all, that’s not legally or practically possible. States do not control immigration, the federal government does. You cannot keep people from crossing state borders, either. Interstate commerce and all that, not to mention it’s a free country.

Secondly, the Paris murderers were not refugees. In fact, they all had European Union passports (French and Belgian). So, Tennessee, are you going to bar Belgians and Frenchmen? Or just the ones that have funny names? Have y’all thought this through at all?

Of course not. This is just plain hysterical behavior. And mean. And un-Christian, if you ask me.

Call me crazy, but I think when we elect people to public office, they should be capable of critical thinking—not merely stirring the pot and stoking more fear. I am not surprised that a few people who don’t know any better are freaking out back home. I am very disappointed that TWENTY SIX GOVERNORS, a variety of other elected officials, and several presidential candidates are basically waving the white flag and doing exactly what these ISIS/ISIL/Daesh maniacs want them to do. Which is to throw out our values and backslide into the era of the Crusades along with them.

Good grief, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz even said that we should only let in Christian refugees. That’s about the most un-American thing I can imagine. And mean. And un-Christian, did I mention that?

So, today, a week before Thanksgiving, I am still thankful to be American. I do not lie awake at night worrying my personal safety living and traveling in Europe. I have assessed that risk and determined it to be tolerable relative to the rewards.

But I do worry about my country. I worry a little about terrorism, but I worry more that our worst enemy may well turn out to be ourselves.

Image found on Facebook, sorry don't know who created it!
Image found on Facebook, sorry don’t know who created it!


  1. Great post. I agree 100,000% with “But I do worry about my country. I worry a little about terrorism, but I worry more that our worst enemy may well turn out to be ourselves.”

    I happen to be in the USA right now on home leave. People ask me if I’m scared to go back to Africa because of what happened in Paris. The answer is no – I am scared of what we are doing to our own country because of what happened in Paris. That scares me infinitely more than terrorism.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post.

    I had an email conversation with a Christian friend, who asked me (as an American living in Europe) if the Paris attacks have changed my mind about the refugees.

    I pointed him to this excellent collection of refugee stories (https://medium.com/@humansofnewyork/humans-of-new-york-refugee-stories-243336f4adeb#.rh4omqd30), this one in particular:

    “After one month, I arrived in Austria. The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!’”

    I told my friend: “These are the kinds of people who built America.”

    I also told him, “As an atheist, I don’t think too often about Jesus…but if I imagine him speaking of the refugees, I think he’d say, ‘We have to help our brothers and sisters. If the situation was reversed, we would welcome THEIR help.'”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You say it all so eloquently. I am so much more worried about going to the USA for language training next year than living in a Muslim country as I do now (OK, it is a vehemently moderate country, but still). The question is how to help our fellow Americans move away from their reptilian instincts?

    Liked by 1 person

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