America needs to get a grip
The Paris attacks have brought back the dark shadow of America's Bush-era anti-terror politics. Conservatives are demanding repression and violence, while many Democrats are running scared. They are enabled in this by mainstream journalists like The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, who breezily declares that barring refugees is "smart politics" because conservatives are worried about Islamic extremism; or Slate's William Saletan, who argues that our late period of libertarian isolationism (???) is simply going to have to end.
My fellow Americans: Don't listen to this garbage. Let's take a deep breath and get a grip.
First of all, Islamist terrorism is a fairly minor threat. Yes, the Paris attacks (like 9/11, Madrid, Mumbai, and countless atrocities in Iraq and Syria) were a terrible tragedy. But we need to be realistic about how strong ISIS really is. It's true that decently organized young men with simple explosives and cheap automatic weapons can easily massacre hundreds of civilians and terrorize millions. But that is not even close to a "an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization," as Jeb Bush ludicrously claimed. Compared to Nazi Germany, or the Soviets with their hundreds of long-range nukes, ISIS is pathetically weak.
Indeed, as Derek Davison argues, ISIS's recent al Qaeda-like focus on international terrorism is very likely a result of months of defeats on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Only the day before the Paris attacks, Kurdish and Yazidi forces routed ISIS fighters in the city of Sinjar, cutting off a major supply route from Raqqa (ISIS's major stronghold) to Ramadi. Unable to make progress towards their "caliphate" on the ground, they are lashing out at soft targets in an attempt to restore their old aura of invincibility and progress, and likely to try to reinforce the idea that Islam and the West are irreconcilable.
The truth is that while ISIS's deranged brand of faux-Muslim extremism has proven durable enough to construct a wobbly little proto-state (and attract a smattering of bored idiot Europeans thirsty for adventure), it is completely doomed in the long run. Every single one of ISIS's predecessors has died the exact same death: by enraging a powerful nation and getting pounded into smithereens. ISIS only survives today on the political chaos left behind by the bungled invasion of Iraq (half the leadership are former Baath Party) and the crumbling of the Assad dictatorship.
It may take some time for ISIS to completely die off, and the succession of state failures may not be over — Saudi Arabia is looking none too healthy these days — but sooner or later, things will settle down. The Thirty Years' War can match anything happening in Syria for atrocities, and that was still getting started 12 years in.
Furthermore, sheltering refugees is an obvious way to attack ISIS's ideological legitimacy. They are really sensitive about the refugee issue, because it puts the lie to their self-image as the holy land for all Islam. When about every Muslim who possibly can is running for their lives, it tends to draw attention to the fact that ISIS is full of mass-murdering child rapists who kill far more Muslims than they do any other religious group. Conversely, assisting desperate people fleeing persecution is a powerful statement that the West will live up to its values of openness and tolerance, and not turn away tens of thousands of innocent people because we might overlook a couple extremists in their midst.
It's also, you know, the right thing to do. Would Jesus Christ send a 3-year-old orphan back to be butchered by evil fanatics? I think not.
Refugees are a very low risk for terrorism. It is excruciatingly difficult to get refugee status — especially since the process has recently become so Byzantine and paranoid that it's next to impossible for anyone to actually make it through the application. But here's the bottom line: Since 9/11, the U.S. has accepted some 784,000 refugees. None have committed any acts of terrorism in the U.S. — and only three have ever been arrested for terror-related crimes, two for sending money to al Qaeda in Iraq and one whose plot was totally preposterous. Similarly, all the Paris attackers firmly identified so far have been EU nationals, not Syrian refugees.
Does that mean it's totally impossible for some ISIS killer to sneak in with the refugees? Of course not. But tourist, student, and business visas are far easier to get than refugee status, if you've got the cash. That's how every single one of the 9/11 hijackers got into the country. If we were really concerned about ISIS infiltration, that would be the first route to worry about. (Even more important would be sorting out the outrageous disaster zone that is the American security apparatus, but that's another story.)
The fact that conservatives who are explosively soiling themselves in panic immediately jumped to bar the door to refugees, while barely even mentioning the fact that half of Europe has a visa waiver agreement with the U.S., is stark evidence that it's anti-Islamic bigotry, not sensible security precautions, driving this attitude. Many conservatives are basically open about this.
So chill, America. This is a great big powerful country, armed to the teeth, with strong institutions and a rich economy. If we can muster the courage to stand with our better angels, ISIS will eventually crumble.