When Trump released his ill-conceived and poorly-executed immigration order that stopped the flow of refugees from seven Muslim countries, he justified the action based on “national security,” claiming that it would keep out the “bad people” who were hell-bent on acts of terrorism. Leaving aside that no Americans have been killed in acts of terrorism from any of the seven named countries since before the Refugee Act became law 36 years ago, shutting off the flow of Muslim refugees is not merely a useless security gesture, it has a detrimental effect on our security. I haven’t seen too many others making this case, so here are some very good reasons why we should let these people into our country.
Reason One: It drives ISIS nuts. Both sides have their “Great Lie” by which they justify their war. Ours is, “They hate us for our freedoms,” which is nonsense. For ISIS, the Great Lie is that the West, and the United States in particular, is at war with all of Islam, not just the psychotic fringe of Wahhabism that manifests itself as ISIS. However, since Trump and Bannon have both explicitly stated that we are at war with Islam (something President Obama went to great lengths to deny), they’ve pretty much put the Presidential Seal of Approval on the ISIS party line. Barring Muslims from entering the US is just the cherry on top.
There is a corollary to the ISIS claim, which is that they are building a Muslim utopia that hews exactly to the early golden days of Islam under the “Rightly Guided” caliphs, the four successors of the Prophet, before the community fell under the swah of the corrupt Abbasid Caliphate. The fact that millions of Muslims are fleeting this “utopia” is inconvenient for ISIS. When the West takes them in and, on the whole, shows them mercy and compassion, it is a major propaganda blow against ISIS.
Reason Two: Intelligence gathering. Consider, just for a moment, what it would mean for an intelligence apparatus if they had an opportunity to interview several thousand people from a given country, all of whom are highly motivated to cooperate and answer truthfully. Think how much one could learn about that country, especially if it is a place like Iran where the US has no diplomatic presence that would let us spy the old-fashioned way through embassies and consulates. This is not a trivial intelligence stream.
Apart from the visa interviews, the composition of refugees can tell you something about what’s going on. For instance, if there the refugees include an abnormally large fraction of physicians and nurses, that might tell you that the country’s healthcare system is in trouble. A long interview with someone from the financial industry could provide a deeper look into their banking system, and so on. This is very useful intelligence, often harder to get in other ways.
Reason Three: Recruitment. Would-be terrorists realize, for the most part, that trying to slip through the refugee vetting process is a sucker’s bet. Besides, since most of these refugees were actually made homeless by ISIS, it’s not hard to imagine what would happen if one of those refugees managed to penetrate the infiltrator’s cover. If you are really afraid of ISIS in your neighborhood, you would do well to let in some refugees, who hate ISIS with a bloody passion and can probably smell one a mile away.
However, defectors are welcome. The refugee process gives them a chance to connect with people who could use whatever information they may be carrying. Even if someone is not actively trying to defect, former members of the military, politicians, or executives and workers in sensitive industries are sometimes amenable to recruitment by our government. Even if they don’t end up working with sensitive information, they can provide all kinds of valuable information.
Reason Four: Winning the “War on Terror” (or whatever it is we’re calling it this week). The problem is that in a “war” such as the War on Terror, victory goes to the side that, at the end of the day, can lay unassailable claim to the moral high ground. It is a contest over whose vision will dictate our global future. Shortly after 9/11, when the nation was in a schizophrenia between shaken trauma and raging bloodlust, I remarked to a friend of mine that I was concerned about what America would have to become in order to prevail. The Bush years that followed confirmed my worst fears. We fell into fear-driven policies of ham-handed militarism, preemptive war, torture, a top-heavy security state, and any number of other foreign and domestic blunders. The election of Donald Trump is, arguably, the nadir of our worst impulses brought on by that fateful day.
But now I find myself asking the same question, not about fighting terrorism, but restoring our better angels to their rightful place. The outpouring of support for refugees here has not gone unnoticed abroad. Many foreign Muslims see the protests and think that maybe the United States isn’t at war with Islam after all. By bringing in these people, if only because it is the right thing to do, perhaps we can become a nation that dissipates the miasma of extremism.