Dear Governor Hassan,
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and your subsequent call to halt the process of allowing Syrian refugees to cross into our country, I write to ask for your compassion, empathy, and courage to look at a picture that paints the world as more complex than you’d like it to be. Perhaps more complex than is convenient to a political platform.
It is understandable that, following these attacks by ISIS, terror and panic rush in and cloud over any compassionate impulses. The all-too-easily abstractable statistic of millions of refugees without homes is hard to translate into images that our minds and hearts know what to do with, whereas violent acts of terrorism leave images that linger all too vividly.
You, no doubt, both perceived and felt the fear of infiltration. The fear of oversights in vetting. The fear of attacks that are repeats of Paris, or September 11, or worse. You likely perceived and felt the fear of the unknown that comes when we allow strangers into our communities.
The role of a leader such as yourself in such a situation, however, is specifically to not take the easy path of fear. Your role is to remain grounded, to retain your integrity, and to set a positive, responsible example.
The Syrian conflict has taken the lives of 220,000 people, has displaced 11 million, and has created a “lost generation” of children who have lost all access to education. The vast majority of them will not enter another school before entering adulthood.
I know that you have access to the same information that I do and that I don’t need to tell you why potential terrorists would need to be even more insane than they already are to attempt to enter our country by registering as refugees. I don’t need to tell you that New Hampshire’s disinterest in expanding background checks on firearm purchases is a direct contradiction to any counter-terrorism policies you would ever suggest. It probably won’t matter if I tell you that I lived in Jordan in the fall of 2013 and worked with Syrian refugees who embodied selflessness, hospitality, generosity, and kindness to a far greater extent than most people I have met. I don’t need to tell you that they were the lucky ones because they got out. You know the stories. You’ve probably seen the images.
You do not have the luxury of making or recommending rushed, fear-based policy decisions in the tumultuous wake of violence because you have the luxury of vast resources and expertise at your disposal which make it possible for you to arrive at a well-informed, complex understanding of the Syrian conflict, of the threat of ISIS, of what it would look like to open our communities to refugees. It is ethically wrong, therefore, to present a simplified version of a complex truth when tens of thousands of innocent people are fleeing for their lives. You are doing a disservice to your role as a public leader and to the democratic values that brought that role into existence. You are knowingly contributing to a sensationalist, misinformed culture of fear and xenophobia that takes advantage of a collective emotional response following attacks such as those in Paris.
In the meantime, over 400,000 people in the United States have died from gun violence on our own streets since 2001, in crimes committed by our own citizens. Over 300 people died last year in New Hampshire alone due to drug overdose. Nearly one in four women in this state have been the victims of sexual assault.
Yes, ISIS is a threat. Yes, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are peaceful folks trying to escape horrific violence. And yes, we inflict violence on each other and on ourselves at vastly higher rates than any terrorist in our country ever has.
What we need from leaders such as yourself is a complex perspective and a rejection of sensationalist rhetoric. We do not need more fear, more conformity to dangerously simple narratives that win votes and undermine communities.
We do not need leaders who accept and largely ignore established violence within our borders while mistrusting an entire group of people in dire need. We do not need leaders who allow Syrian refugees to become much scarier monsters than those that we as a society breed and set free within our own communities — racism, violence against women, gun violence, and drug addiction. It is incredibly disheartening to see, again and again, how hard it is for us to reject the monsters that roam our own streets because it is fundamentally harder for us to reject parts of ourselves. And it is disheartening to see how easily we create monsters out of people who are different and apart from us. How easily this becomes an excuse for inaction and apathy.
We, Governor Hassan, deserve leaders who choose the harder path of setting positive examples in our communities. That means courage, honesty, integrity, and compassion. I believe you to be fully capable of each of these things and I believe that you have fully fallen short.
The American people, the Syrian people, others who are — or will one day be — in need, are counting on you and others in similar positions of power to do what we elected you to do: lead.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.