During my senior year of high school, I went on an overnight Catholic retreat. The organizers of the retreat reached out to the attendees’ friends and families to collect letters about all sorts of things: what we meant to them, what their faith meant to them or even just offering general advice as we prepared to leave for college.
Watching the response around the country and on campus to President Trump’s divisive policies and rhetoric, a line from one of these letters stuck out in my mind:
“People often claim that hate is the opposite of love (I think they bought into that hate/love T-shirt or something). That’s not really true. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather fear, and from this fear, all negative and painful emotions flow.”
From the data alone, Trump’s signature policies thus far — the former travel ban and the border wall — seem indefensible. The administration defended the travel ban as being necessary for national security, but none of the 9/11 conspirators came from any of the seven countries targeted by the travel ban. Furthermore, since 9/11, there have been 10 deadly terrorist attacks on American soil — but none of the terrorists came from any of the seven countries affected by the ban.
Yet when the media reported stories of individuals seemingly deserving of exceptions to the travel ban barred from entering the United States — long-time U.S. residents, individuals who risked their lives to help the U.S. military, college students and babies traveling to the United States for life-saving surgery — many still supported the policy by arguing that it was necessary to protect Americans from potential terrorists.
Facts and data may not be capable of explaining this reaction, but fear can. In Europe, massive flows of refugees — as many as 10,000 per day and an estimated 1 million total in 2015 — poured over the weak, under-resourced southern borders of already financially and politically strained countries like Greece. This caused massive social and political shocks and damaged Europe’s tourism industry. Some of the refugees perpetrated deadly terrorist attacks.
However, there are obvious differences between the realities of the refugee situations in the European Union and United States, the starkest of which is the geographic distance between Greece and Syria, and the United States and Syria. Given that many refugees fled extremely desperate circumstances with a few precious belongings, it makes sense that refugees weren’t arriving on American shores in the same numbers they were on Greece’s shores.
Many migrants travel through Turkey and cross the Aegean Sea to get to Greece — a water crossing that is only about four miles at its narrowest point. Despite this relative proximity, more than 3,000 refugees have died attempting to reach European shores as of September 2016. Under similar conditions, the nearly 6,000-mile journey from Syria to New York seems almost impossible under similar conditions.
In stark contrast, the United States admits a small number of refugees who pass the strictest vetting processes required of any immigrant group, and as far as all available data is concerned, are actually less likely to commit acts of deadly terror than Americans born in the United States. A whopping 84 percent of jihadist terrorist were born in the United States. (Note: These numbers don’t include other major sources of domestic terrorism like right-wing terrorist groups, including white supremacists and neo-Nazi terrorist groups, and left-wing terrorist groups.)
None of this is to suggest that terrorism is not a real or credible threat — it is. But there is little reason to believe that this travel ban would save American lives. Additionally, in many respects, U.S. post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts have been successful. Further improvements should focus on strengthening the intelligence gathering efforts that have proven crucial to the fight against terrorism thus far.
But fear doesn’t engender evidence-based decisions. Fear promotes a try-anything-and-everything approach. Fear prompts ordinarily rational people to project their concerns and anxieties on undeserving targets.
In this case, those targets are refugees. In other cases, those targets are Black and Hispanic men blamed for small upticks in violent crime rates, women and immigrants blamed for taking jobs that would ordinarily go to white American males.
Violent crime and economic stagnation are legitimate fears. The United States needs solutions to the problems of gun violence, widening income inequality and illegal immigration. But projecting these anxieties onto others and letting that animosity shape policy will not result in solutions to the very real challenges we face. In practice, letting fear — not evidence — drive policy may actually worsen our problems or create new ones. Even to those who accept harming members of a marginalized group as a cost of assuaging their fears should not accept outcomes that make the whole country worse off.
In 1947, the then-called U.S. Department of War released an anti-Nazi propaganda video titled “Don’t Be a Sucker.” The central character of the video was named Mike, an American everyday man who seemed to have everything going for him: He was young, healthy and owned a prosperous factory where free men and women from all over the world worked to produce products used all over the world.
“Mike’s got something, all right,” the narrator told viewers. “He’s got America. But there are guys who stay up nights, figuring out how to take that away from him.”
Who wanted to take America from poor Mike?
The video cuts to an angry white man addressing a crowded park, shouting, “We’ll never be able to call this country our own until it’s a country without … Negros, without alien foreigners, without Catholics, without freemasons.”
By attempting to protect our country and ourselves from outsiders, we risk strangling the things that make America truly great. We prevent others from bringing their new ideas, work ethic and diverse ways of looking at the world and the problems it faces— all essential ingredients to the innovation and enterprise that made our country the leader that it is.
Helping to preserve that beautiful version of America requires more than simply opposing Trump and his policies. If we really want to keep America great, we need to continuously challenge our own beliefs and address our own fears and their many manifestations. If we don’t, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who want to use them against us in support of policies that will make us — and our country — worse off in the long run.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.