Ever since ISIS’ (ISIL/Daesh) attacks on Paris, and even before, conservatives have been climbing over one another to display their hatred of Muslims. Donald Trump, for example, has gone “full-Hitler,” suggesting that we should close down mosques in our country, keep a database of Muslims in America, and force those who follow the Islamic faith to carry special identification cards. Others, while not as extreme as the billionaire 2016 hopeful, have suggested that the United States close the borders and refuse to take in Syrian refugees, whom they are sure are terrorists but are actually enemies of ISIS seeking refuge. Some 2016 presidential candidates have even suggested that we tear up the Constitution and require a religious test for refugees, allowing only Christians into the country.
This shameful display of illogical hatred, while acceptable to the GOP’s base of threatened white males, is more than mildly irritating to those of us on the left who are capable of operating a toaster without adult assistance — but even some Republicans have tired of the bigotry espoused by their brethren. Oklahoma Congressman Steve Russell, a former U.S. Army officer who helped capture Saddam Hussein, attacked his party’s stance on Syrian refugees on Wednesday in a fiery speech to Congress, denouncing Republicans’ hateful rhetoric that they level at refugees.
“For all of our advancement in self-governance, the rule of law, and the betterment of people’s lives, the world stands in crisis,” Russell said on the House floor. “Our actions toward evil, twisted brands of militant Islamic jihadism in the coming months will determine how humanity navigates the coming century. As Will Durant correctly predicts, we must either prevent the death of civilized life or become savages again.”
“As the world watched in horror, it has also looked to the United States,” the congressman said, referencing the more than 400 lives lost in three separate ISIS attacks in recent weeks. “Where America leads, nations stand shoulder to shoulder. Where America is absent, tyranny takes it chances and rears its ugly head. But who would have thought America, through constant inaction and listless response, would allow barbarity to prosper?”
“While I have tried to focus my comments on actions that we should take to eliminate ISIS, one action we should not take is to become like them. America is a lamp that lights the horizon of civilized and free mankind,” he added. “The Statue of Liberty cannot have a stiff arm. Her arm must continue to keep the torch burning brightly. If we use our passions, anger, and fear to snuff out her flame by xenophobic and knee-jerk policy, the enemy wins. We have played into their hands, period.”
And, of course, he is correct that we have played into ISIS’ hands. The attackers were furnished with fake Syrian passports in an effort to rain down suspicion on a group of people who simply want to escape the barbarism represented by religious extremists — something Simon Kuper, a columnist with the Financial Times, points out is part of a strategy to “discredit” refugees and force European countries to close their borders. It is, perhaps with this realization, that French President Francois Hollande announced that, despite the attacks, his country intends to continue to provide shelter to ISIS’ enemies.
President Obama has also been critical of Republicans who, seemingly afraid of their own shadows, are “scared of widows and three-year-old orphans.” Like the President, of whom Russell remains critical, the congressman doesn’t view Syrian refugees as a threat:
“Here are some Syrian refugee facts you may not know. Despite a long-established, multilayered system to vet and bring refugees into the United States–I have worked with the International Organization for Migration on deployed battlefields, and I have worked with the UNHCR in their efforts to help place refugees–despite a long-established system, despite biometric and biographic screening, despite intelligence vetting with the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, added to the fact that Syrian refugees receive additional screening to national security concerns–and most of them are women and children–coupled with the fact that only a total of 1,900 Syrians have entered this country in the last 4 years, most of them women and children, Americans across the country now are calling on Lady Liberty to drop her torch and give the stiff arm, with perhaps even another gesture.”
“I want you to listen carefully to these statements by Members of Congress in response to a refugee bill–not an illegal immigration bill or permanent residents, but refugees, a refugee bill,” Russell continued. “Listen to these comments by Members of Congress about people fleeing for their lives.” The remarks are shocking, but what is even more surprising is that the bill was not even from this century:
Fighting immigration is “the best vote-getting argument . . . The politician can beat his breast and proclaim his loyalty to America.”
“He can tell the unemployed man that he is out of work because some alien has a job.”
Here is another one:
Congress must “protect the youth of America from this foreign invasion.”
And how about this one?
“American children have first claim to America’s charity.”
There are many more, but these quotes were from 1939. The refugee bill was not for Muslim and Christian Syrians or Iraqi Muslims, Christians and Yazidis; it was for German Jews. While it was true that Germany was, indeed, a threat, the refugees were not. They were 20,000 children.
Not only did that bill of 1939 not pass, but that Congress, with the same speech and rhetoric that I have been hearing in recent days in this august Chamber, Mr. Speaker, passed hurdle after hurdle in 1939 to make it more difficult for refugees to enter. They were, unfortunately, successful.
One of those Jewish children was Anne Frank, who may still be alive today were it not for the hateful rhetoric spewed by politicians at the time — rhetoric that is reminiscent of Republican remarks today. The only difference is that the refugees in question hail from a different Semitic group than in 1939. The hatred is still the same.
“America protects her liberty and defends her shores not by punishing those who would be free; she does it by guarding liberty with her life,” Russell said. “Americans need to sacrifice and wake up. We must not become them. They win if we give up who we are, and even more so, without a fight.” The GOP congressman emphasized the importance of protecting liberty by refusing to become our enemies’ mirror:
We guard our way of life by vigilance. We must be watchful. We have to have each others’ back and be alert to dangers around us. We must speak up when we see something unusual. By maintaining who we are amidst the threat, amidst the hatred, amidst the trials, we win.
Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me safety or give me death,” but, rather, “Give me liberty,” implying that he was willing to lose his life to defend that liberty.
“We have defended our way of life, Mr. Speaker, for 240 years. Now we as Americans must defend it again,” he said, adding that our way of life must even be defended when a bunch of conservatives sit around and bitch on social media. “We must defend it when the critic sitting on the couch in his underwear eating his bag of cheese puffs is pecking out hatred and vitriol on some social media. We must defend it and have courage when voters are caught up with sincere passion, demanding security that also might kill our liberty…”We will always have threats, but liberty, when lost, takes generations, if ever, to regain.”
This message is something to which conservatives should pay attention. In discriminating against, in hating, and in demonizing refugees fleeing ISIS, we as a nation lose our soul. We become nothing more than a doppleganger of those we hate. We become no better than they are. Most importantly, we prove to those who would otherwise be our allies that ISIS was right about us in the first place.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.