My Turn: Not knowing is a freedom we can no longer afford

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, November 20, 2015 1:03am
  • Opinion

Syrian refugees aren’t wanted here. That’s the message from more than 30 governors who all claim it’s their first duty to ensure the safety of their citizens. If that’s our response to last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, then America is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. We’ve become prisoners to fears of a world we’ve chosen not to know.

Gov. Bill Walker was one of the few governors that refused to follow this knee-jerk reaction. And that’s exactly what it is, because although the attacks shocked us all, the tragedy in Paris hasn’t changed any of the facts on the ground there or in Syria, Iraq and the rest of the war-ravaged Middle East.

“No one who paid attention to the attacks in Paris last January should have been surprised that something like this would happen somewhere in France,” writes George Packer in the New Yorker. In between he rattles off a host of other signs that indicated ISIS wasn’t finished there. And he ended the paragraph by stating, “with the U.S. leading the air campaign against ISIS for more than a year … no one should doubt that America is in the group’s crosshairs, too.”

Packer, however, wasn’t sounding a warning against allowing refuges to come here. They’ve got to go somewhere. But the majority of America’s governors are essentially saying “let others take the risk.” That’s similar to the fear-inspired logic expressed by President George W. Bush during the Iraq War. “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad” he said, “so we don’t have to face them here at home.”

That argument resurfaced after last January’s attacks in France. But it’s a defensive strategy which isn’t exclusively ours. As Juan Cole wrote in The Nation magazine last winter, Muslim academics believe the Koran “sanctions only defensive war.” He was writing mainly in response to an Atlantic article, titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” where among his 10,000-word analysis, author Graeme Wood explained how ISIS has extrapolated the defensive war interpretation to include attacking civilians in the west.

It’s not a stretch to equate ISIS’s murderous strategy as defensive. After all, most Americans agreed that the Syrian civil war was none of our business. But we made it ours when ISIS moved into Iraq in August 2014 and the U.S.-led coalition began bombing them. That’s when ISIS responded as Wood described. It’s their way of taking the fight to their enemy’s home turf.

I’m not defending ISIS, but the current public outcry over the risks posed by Syrian refugees only makes sense in the context that the Paris attacks surprised us. The fact that Wood’s 9-month-old article has suddenly become the most popular piece on The Atlantic’s website supports the conclusion that most Americans think we’re free to ignore the world’s conflicts until the battles wash up near our shores.

It was understandable not to know what was going on in the world before America became a global empire. National news crawled across the landscape back then. But burying our heads in the sand today is a form of freedom we’ve chosen in order to have more time to shop till we drop, watch football and endlessly follow our friends on Facebook.

The freedom not to know comes with a serious price tag, even in the relatively remote homesteads of Alaska. Just ask Hank Lentfer. When he was 23 years old, he thought owning enough acreage in Gustavus was all he needed to keep the rest of the world away. It didn’t work.

Among Lentfer’s reclusive joys was the seasonal migration of Sandhill Cranes that graced the Gustavus skies. But after a decade of avoiding troubling news about their distant habitat, he realized that unrelenting progress threatened the serenity the cranes brought to his family’s secluded home. So he began to speak out. Educating himself was more work than he wanted. “Not until I add my voice to the chorus,” he writes in his book Faith of Cranes, “do I know I am not alone.”

Tuning out the world’s problems until disaster strikes is the recipe that’s produced today’s mass hysteria over Syrian refugees. Just as it did 14 years ago, it’s left us dependent on our politicians’ rhetorical pledges of protection. That makes us neither free nor brave. And we’re doomed to this path until many more sacrifice the freedom not to know and join the chorus of worldly citizens seeking a safer planet for us all.

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau and is a retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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