Lessons in Empathy, Humanity, and Geography

by / Nov. 16, 2015 5am EST

The bodies of Paris’ fallen weren’t yet cold before the ghouls sprung to action. 

I saw it plenty on Facebook on Saturday, but by late in the day Conservative Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo had Tweeted the following:  

The Syrian refugees are trying to escape a vicious civil war that has been going on since 2011. They are trying to escape the very members of the Daesh death cult (aside: why to call it Daesh and not ISIS/L) who perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night. However, Daesh has taken advantage of westerners’ empathy and of the European Union’s open market and borders to infiltrate the ranks of the refugees and to kill innocent people. Based on current reports, we should be more wary of letting in people with Belgian passports

The EU’s open border scheme is commonly referred to as the 26-member “Schengen” area, named for the Dutch city where the treaty creating it was signed. Although many of the refugees have arrived in Greece — a Schnegen state — it is not contiguous with any other. The refugees have largely passed from Greece into non-EU states Macedonia and Serbia before arriving in EU/Schengen member Hungary. Overwhelmed by refugees it didn’t want, Hungary quickly sealed parts of its border with Serbia, causing migrants to instead head for non-Schengen EU state Croatia. From there, they have been processed and allowed passage through Schengen-EU members Slovenia and Austria into Germany, which has all but invited them. 

The point of all of this is that these small, often poor, southeastern EU members are ill-equipped to properly process and vet everyone coming through. This is a serious problem for Europe, and one it needs to get a handle on quickly because of the admitted Daesh infiltration. This is difficult, but not impossible.  

When France says it’s closing its borders, it doesn’t mean it’s not letting anyone in or out — it means it is re-establishing border controls that it took down when Schengen was implemented. Until last week, anyone wishing to travel between France and literally any one of its neighbors did not generally have to stop and show a passport upon entry or exit; there were no customs or passport controls, like when you travel from New York to Connecticut. Now, France has re-established passport / identity card checks on all of its points of entry, which likely spells the end of the Schengen experiment, at least for the time being.

The United States, by contrast, is neither a member of the EU, nor a signatory to the Schengen agreement. Likewise, its territory is not contiguous with that of Europe or the Middle East. A Syrian refugee has to board a plane or ship in order to get to the US, and must have a valid passport or refugee travel document and requisite visa or other permission to do so. The process to obtain a US visa is not a simple one, and subjects an applicant to a background check and consular interview. 

Even members of countries that belong to the US visa waiver program have a series of hurdles to jump before they’re allowed entry into the US. These travelers are subjected to screening before they’re let on the plane, much less upon arrival at their point of entry. It’s safe to say that our Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection are selective and cautious about whom they let into the country; especially by air, and especially with a passport from a war zone, or with a Red Cross refugee passport. The State Department’s underlying resettlement process takes 18 — 24 months to properly vet and screen refugees coming to the US. It’s also safe to say that any refugee seeking passage to the United States from Europe will be subjected to a level of scrutiny about which you or I would become so incensed, that we would write scathing Facebook posts or Yelp reviews condemning it. 

As the Syrian refugee crisis was gearing up, local news outlets reported in September that up to 300 Syrian refugees were likely to eventually settle in western New York. (WGRZ, Buffalo News, Buffalo News, Business First, WIVB). They would not simply teleport to WNY en masse to impose Sharia Law on Erie County. In his Tweets, (and in the social media postings I have seen from other Republican mouthpieces in the last 48 hours), Lorigo pushes the fiction that it’s somehow Mark Poloncarz who is personally inviting these 300 Syrian refugees to western New York, or — more to the point — that Poloncarz has some say in the matter. He doesn’t, and it’s not.

The County Executive and the County Legislature have no power to exclude people legally present in the United States from settling here. County government — neither Poloncarz nor the legislature — has no say in who gets to settle here. 

There are four refugee resettlement agencies in western New York — Journey’s End, the International Institute of Buffalo, Jewish Family Services, and Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which combined assist about 1,500 refugees every year. Recent refugees resettled in western New York have arrived from war-torn places like Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, the Congo, and Eritrea, yet at no point did any politician take time out to concern-troll about security on Twitter about any of them. 

The United States is expected to welcome about 10,000 Syrian refugees. That isn’t just a comparative drop in the bucket, but a Californian drought. By contrast, the EU has brought in 270,000 refugees, Lebanon has welcomed 1.1 million, and Turkey has 1.7 million.

The opportunity to politicize a human tragedy of epic proportions is, no doubt, irresistibly tempting for some. Add in the opportunity to exploit hysteria, fear, and racism, and you’ve got a toxic brew of resentment waiting to be stirred. It’s especially palpable in a place like Buffalo, which is just getting back its economic sea legs. 

Poloncarz issued the following statement Sunday, including a response to Lorigo. Emphases mine:  

Our thoughts go out to our brethren in France and we stand by our French compatriots after this horrible attack. On Friday evening immediately after the Paris attacks I contacted Central Police Services Commissioner John Glascott and Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth, Jr. to determine if there were any terrorist warnings or other information on potential terrorist attacks in the United States. The Commissioners, who are in constant communication with federal and state homeland security agencies regarding potential terrorist threats, advised me there were no credible threats reported. Since then the Commissioners have provided me with ongoing reports from the Counter Terrorism Center at the New York State Intelligence Center, a division of NYS’s Homeland Security Department. I also spoke to Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, who informed me that his office had no knowledge of any credible threats. The Sheriff and all Erie County departments take any threat very seriously and will remain vigilant going forward. 

In regard to Legislator Lorigo’s comments, I am disappointed both by his comments and his ignorance of the process of resettling refugees in our country. Erie County government is NOT an active participant in the re-settlement of refugees. The decision to allow refugees of any nationality into our country is made by the federal government and the placement of refugees who are legal immigrants into communities in the U.S. is made by the federal and state governments. Neither the County Executive nor any branch of Erie County government has any say in whether any refugee is resettled in our community, nor can we prevent a legal immigrant from being resettled here.

In New York, local not-for-profit resettlement agencies work with federal and state agencies to place refugees into communities based on the ability of the agency to support them. Local resettlement agencies include Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., and the International Institute of Buffalo. Once a refugee is placed in our community through one of these agencies, Erie County’s Department of Social Services may work with the agency and individual, if the individual qualifies for any federal or state benefits, to ensure a better transition into the community. 

Many of the refugees fleeing Syria are Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians who fled their country because they had no choice. As such, I am very disappointed by Legislator Lorigo’s statement, which seemed to be stoking the fires of Islamophobia. While we all must remain vigilant, it is important to note that our region has a long history of being a new home for immigrants from around the world who fled civil war or faced persecution in their homeland, including Iraqis, Burmese, Somalis, and during the past two years a small contingent of Syrians. All of these people have been vetted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, before being admitted to our country and placed in any community.

Erie County’s limited role, working with our partner agencies, is to help individuals who have been legally admitted to our country regardless of their religion or country of origin adjust to a new home. In that role, as always, we will continue to remain alert against terrorism in any of its forms, foreign or domestic.

What is all this? Joe Lorigo  - the majority leader of the do-little County Legislature — sees an opportunity to expoit people’s fears to grab a headline, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t take advantage of it. Watch Monday as his colleagues in the majority caucus inevitably echo his clarion call; people with no say over the matter demanding that another guy with no say over the matter do something. I’ve already been accused of holding a “cynical” and “insulting” opinion on this topic when expressed via social media. Perhaps — it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, but it represents my observation of what’s happening.  

When there’s a mass shooting in the United States and gun control advocates express a desire for fewer guns, or that people be subjected to tighter restrictions on their ownership or possession, we’re told that we’re anti-Constitutionalist traitor motherfuckers and that these things wouldn’t do a stitch of good. Yet somehow excluding 300 Syrian families from resettling in WNY is magically going to prevent terrorist attacks? 

Scott Whitmire, a former colleague of mine, is more conservative than I, and we frequently disagree — especially when it comes to gun violence. After recounting a few recent cases where Americans rushed into danger to help save strangers to whom they owed nothing, he wrote this:  

I won’t claim that this “have a go heroism” is uniquely American: It is not. It is, however, an intrinsic part of our DNA. We enlist by the millions to fight wars not our own. We rush towards danger, we hear the call, the sound of gunfire and we fight. Often, we prevail. Often our cause is not ours, but the cause of those that cannot take their quarrel to the foe.

After the carnage in Paris last night, many are calling for halting all influx of refugees from war-torn Syria. Pictures of dubious provenance are being circulated purporting to show that all of the refugees are fit, trim, fighting age males. The implication is that the stream of refugees is an undercover army or somesuch. People are saying that Paris is the result of allowing streams of Muslims into France. People are explicitly blaming the refugees. People are using these events to paint all Muslims with this bloodied brush. Others point out that the refugees are refugees precisely because of the actions of ISIS and their ilk.

I am not particularly interested in entertaining a conversation that paints a billion and half people with the actions of dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands. This is barely statistical noise. The conversation we need to be having is this: What is the risk posed by taking in the refugees, and are we willing to bear that risk.

Make no mistake: Welcoming 100,000 people from that region virtually guarantees that we will be bringing in some who are either already jihadists or are easily recruited to that end. If only 1% of the refugees fit the profile of current or recruitable jihadi, that’s about 1000 individuals. If 1% of that pool is actually motivated to action, that’s 10. Paris was carried out by 8. You may dispute my numbers, they are, after all, only guesses. Depending upon who you ask, that 1% could be anywhere from 0.1% to 30%, I feel comfortable with 1% as a reasonable guess.

Bringing in 100,000 Syrian refugees thus significantly increases the odds that we will see a Paris/Mumbai style attack here. Even screening out the active jihadist won’t change that fact as often terrorists are recruited after moving.

We owe the Syrian refugees nothing.

It’s a pernicious threat because it’s so decentralized. The only response to decentralized threats is a decentralized response. No other nation on earth is as equipped to deal with such a decentralized threat. Remember, we’re the ones that run at the jihadi on a train when he’s armed with a rifle. We’re the ones that run toward gunfire on a campus. And these were unarmed folks. We’re the ones that own guns at a rate that far outstrips every other nation, civilized or no.

So, to come full circle. We take horrific risks, often on behalf of those to whom we owe nothing. Innocent Syrians fleeing civil war are precisely such people. Bringing them here is a risk, but it’s a risk we are uniquely prepared to face, at least outside of the democrat controlled places like NY. Should we do it? Should we let them in? If so, how many? How do we screen them? Where will we house them? I don’t know. I do know that we should fight the urge to reflexively turtle the fuck up.

As an ancillary point to all this, I’ve made no attempt to assess long term risks and benefits, but these also need to be part of the conversation. I know that the divide on this issue is largely along the same lines that divide us on gun control. If you accept the premise that a decentralized response can mitigate the risk posed by the influx of refugees, perhaps those on the left could offer some changes in their demand for our disarmament. You may find that people are more supportive of taking risks if you decide to defend rather than attack their ability to meet those risks.

I don’t advocate generally for disarmament — merely that we do what we can to try and prevent violent maniacs from having barrier-free access to firearms. I don’t advocate for barrier-free entry to this country for anyone claiming to be a refugee, either. We have processes and investigatory procedures in place to assess whether an applicant is to be allowed into this country. If you think back to the 1990s, this country took in hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. How many Bosnian-Americans have committed some act of terror in this country? 

But Whitmire’s underlying point is valid — we stick our necks out for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free all the time, and we shouldn’t knee-jerkedly reject the small handful of Syrians we’ve agreed to take in just because of what happened in Paris. We shouldn’t stoke fear and hatred to gain political points or advantage. 

Out of many millions of Syrian refugees, here we have one —  maybe a few - who committed an atrocity. We must fight and reject terror, regardless of its perpetrators or aims. We should also reject political efforts to exploit fears and prejudices, and render the words “refugee” and “terrorist” synonymnous. We should especially do this when it politicizes a tragedy before its dead have had the dignity of burial. Joe Lorigo takes to Twitter, grabs a headline, and implicitly alleges that Poloncarz would knowingly or intentionally put western New Yorkers at risk. 

That, to me, is truly the more cynical and insulting notion.