In the wake of Friday's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, news emerged that one of the suicide bombers may have had a Syrian passport and entered Europe amid the number of recent migrants. Yet President Obama had sharp words Monday for current and would-be political leaders who have since stoked fear about the danger of Syrian refugees following the tragedy in France.
Obama said that people fleeing Syria "are the most harmed by terrorism, they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife." He pointedly countered suggestions that the United States should distinguish between Christian and Muslim migrants, calling it "shameful" and saying, "That's not American. It's not who we are." He commended German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her "courageous stance" on welcoming refugees, as well as the G20 for affirming "that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism."
And perhaps most notably, Obama sounded a strong warning to political leaders for their responses linking the refugee crisis and the attacks in Paris. "It’s very important for us right now—particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard—not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us," he said.
It was a sharply distinct view of leadership and the refugee crisis from the one many leaders in the Republican party have been voicing. Though Obama did not mention anyone by name, his remarks seemed pointed at Republican presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz who have suggested the United States should focus its relief efforts on Christian refugees or allow displaced Christians into America but not Muslims from Syria.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has said accepting Syrian refugees is a "suspension of intellect" while Donald Trump has been talking about closing mosques and kicking out those who have already arrived.
Obama's remarks also seemed a response to the growing number of Republican governors who say they plan to close their states' doors to new Syrian refugees. At least nine have said they would do so, including Texas's Greg Abbott.
But the fear that allowing Syrian refugees into the country would be tantamount to allowing in terrorists is not realistic, according to commentary from Kathleen Newland, a co-founder of the think tank Migration Policy Institute. In the 14 years since Sept. 11, she wrote recently, just three of the 784,000 resettled refugees have been arrested connected with terrorist activities. Two of those cases were not in the United States and "the plans of the third were barely credible." A report in the Economist also recently cited Newland, saying that refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists.
Concerns about proper screening are critical, and a commitment to the safety of a state's citizens in the face of terrorism is vitally important. But if an effort to manage either one is taken to its extreme, it quickly becomes leading by fear rather than by the very principles that distinguish the United States from its foes, Obama said.
"Whether you are European or American, the values we’re defending—the values we’re fighting against ISIL for—are precisely that we don’t discriminate against people because of their faith," Obama said. "That’s what separates us from them."