Khalil Tawil served three combat tours in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army infantry officer. From 2011 to 2014, he was a special assistant to the chief prosecutor of military commissions.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I sat glued to the television in my 10th-grade history classroom, watching in shock as smoke and flames poured out of the World Trade Center in New York City. I soon learned that the men who flew jets full of passengers into the towers justified the attacks with a perverse interpretation of Islam. Days later, I read with terror that a Sikh immigrant was gunned down at a gas station not far from my home town of Gilbert, Ariz. His killer thought he was Muslim. Though my Shiite father and Sunni mother had fled the sectarian violence that engulfed Lebanon nearly two decades earlier, I knew as I watched replays of the towers collapsing that one day I would have to return to the region to help safeguard the United States — the only country I had ever called home.
Three years later, I enrolled as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I was not naive about the potential consequences of that decision. In the months before I shipped out for basic training, I warily eyed the mantelpiece in our suburban home, wondering if my high school soccer photographs would someday be replaced with an American flag sent to my mom in my stead.
Now, in the aftermath of the recent tragedies in Paris, I have been saddened to watch as a deep fear of immigrants and refugees has consumed many Americans. Stunningly, more than half of America’s governors have vowed to close their states’ borders to new Syrian refugees, and the House has passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, which would erect nearly insurmountable barriers to immigration for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. These policies defy the great American call to “send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.”
The fear of a Paris-style terrorist attack is understandable — my family fears the same. But had our nation refused my parents’ entry, I never would have had the opportunity to bring the fight to our enemies as a U.S. infantry officer in three combat deployments to Afghanistan. I never would have helped prosecute members of al-Qaeda charged with the horrific murder of civilians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. I never would have experienced my proudest moment in uniform: when I — an Arabic-speaking officer of Muslim heritage — swore legal charges against a senior al-Qaeda leader accused of commanding insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11.
Thankfully, my family was allowed to live the American Dream: a life free from violence and persecution. The United States gave my parents the opportunity to send their children to some of its most admired institutions: West Point, Wharton and Yale. The people of the United States gave us the chance to participate in this grand project of democracy and to be contributing members of the American family.
We lose something essential to who we are if we simply assume that desperate Syrian and Iraqi refugees are Trojan horses, as so many governors, U.S. lawmakers and presidential candidates would have us believe. I know this because I know my parents, who fled at a time when other Lebanese citizens were hijacking airplanes, blowing up Marine barracks and propagating terrorism abroad. It would have been easy for Americans then to turn them away according to the same logic being applied to Syrians and Iraqis today. But my parents, like today’s Syrian and Iraqi refugees, sought only a life free from violence, persecution and discrimination. And the United States welcomed them with open arms. These refugees harbor not thoughts of instigating terrorism but the dream that their children and grandchildren can someday give back to a country that offers them so much.
I write this as a veteran, as an Arab and, most important, as an American. Remember that most Americans are refugees of some type. Either we or our ancestors left somewhere else to come here, whether it was centuries ago or, like my parents, more recently. We are indebted to this country for welcoming us. And now that we live in security, we should not deny that same opportunity to the people fleeing Syria and Iraq. It’s time to end the panic, even as we continue appropriate screening of all who seek entry. There are future West Pointers of Syrian or Iraqi descent waiting to serve this country. Let’s give them a good reason to do so.