This is how a mature country acts. In announcing that France would increase the number of Syrian refugees it will take in over the next two years in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, French President Francois Hollande expressed a sentiment we need much more of in this country: “France should remain as it is. Our duty is to carry on our lives.”
In September, France had committed to accepting 24,000 Syrians. Wednesday, Hollande upped the number to 30,000. That’s three times the number Barack Obama wants to bring into the United States, for a country with about one-fifth our population. Hollande’s government will also spend $53 million on housing for the refugees.
Now, before you start in on the surrender monkey business, bear in mind: Hollande has also not flinched from taking a hard line in other areas. France bombed Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital,” on Sunday. As of Tuesday, 148 people had been placed under constant surveillance. He has sought expansive emergency powers under two articles of the French Constitution, as described here by Art Goldhammer of Harvard, one of America’s leading experts on French society and politics.
So there are some ways in which France will not remain the same, and Hollande has not shrunk from the grim duties that present themselves to a head of state in the wake of such an event. Indeed we can wonder whether France may be going too far in some of these directions. Many in France fret about the country following America’s post-9-11 example on surveillance and liberties.
We can also debate whether France’s counterstrike against ISIS has even been effective. As this report shows, some say that French bombers’ strikes on Raqqa (a city of 200,000) have taken civilian lives, while others say they hit targets that were abandoned and killed no one, not even ISIS fighters.
And we should stipulate that France has hardly been paradise for Syrians and Arabs or Muslims generally, as is well known. Also well known of course is the ferocious anti-immigrant sentiment that pervades the country, expressed politically by Marine Le Pen’s Front National. So France is no shining city on the hill.
But this particular move by Hollande is an act of impressive courage. As Goldhammer notes, European sentiment was already moving against the refugees before the attacks. And get this: Hollande is doing this a mere three weeks away from important regional elections! The first round of voting is on Dec. 6. Le Pen’s party had been expected to carry just one region. After the attacks, the talking heads of France upped that prediction to three or more while forecasting utter doom for Hollande’s Socialists. With this announcement, it may get worse. You can call it dumb politics if you want, but it’s also guts.
Imagine an American president making a similar announcement five days after a terrorist attack on New York or Washington! He’d be crucified. In fact it would probably never occur to a president, maybe not even a President Sanders, to even raise the matter of new refugees, so certain would be the presumption of political disaster.
But Hollande is right. “Our duty is to carry on our lives.” A mere five days after what many are calling his country’s 9/11. I hope France agrees with him and follows his advice, but whether it does is a secondary point. The main point is that he deserves as much moral support as we can give him for recognizing the obvious truth that the worse we treat the refugees, the more we’re playing into ISIS’s narrative about us, and the more alienated young men we’re turning into ISIS recruits; and for having the stones to assert, at least implicitly, that some risk is necessary for the sake of living normally and according to our principles.
France’s long-held principle in this case, and ours, is clear. And a society must organize itself according to principles; and then, as problems and crises arise, we establish what degree of risk we’re willing to accept to uphold those principles. But our principle is to let in refugees. It has been since, well, the beginning of the republic, really, but certainly since 1948, when the principle was first codified. In 1980, it was renewed, in a bill that passed both houses of Congress by huge bipartisan margins.
Obviously, we’re in a different age. Is it reasonable to make certain changes in an age of terrorism? Sure. This ABC report about two Iraqis who’d attacked U.S. soldiers in Iraq and who came to America under the Iraq refugee resettlement program is pretty chilling. Fortunately, the law caught up with them, and they’re in prison.
Cases like that are frightening, but the reality remains that while we should do all we can to live risk-minimizing lives, it’s impossible for us to live risk-free lives. I should have thought that the Republicans currently demagoguing this issue, from presidential candidates who want to establish religious tests for entry to the United States to governors who arrogate to themselves a right they simply do not have, would get that. After all, when it comes to protecting the ability of any nutcase to buy an automatic rifle at a gun show and hundreds of rounds of ammo online, they’re willing to accept plenty of risk, in the form of the mountain of corpses that gun violence has placed at our feet.
Obama has been courageous too. But he is also out on a limb here. If there is someday a domestic terror attack by someone who got in under this program, he’ll bear the blame. And if such an attack were to happen, oh, next fall, Hillary Clinton, who is with Obama on this, would probably pay the biggest price. They both know this, and they’ve decided that it’s a risk worth taking to keep faith with our country’s nobler history, as has Hollande in France.
As for the people on the other side, they are basically the same people who’ve screamed throughout our history about the dangers of letting in Jews and Japanese and Vietnamese and Cubans and everyone else. They’ve never been right, and trying to keep the population in a constant state of agitation and fear never will be right.
Ted Cruz and all the future Ted Cruzes will never stop doing it. A potential screening error may prove that the process was tragically flawed, but it will never, ever prove that demagogic hatred was right.