Syrian refugees, George Zimmerman, and the logic of fear



Many bad arguments are being made in the profoundly misguided effort to keep Syrian refugees from coming to the US.

We have made this xenophobic mistake before, turning away ships filled with desperate Jews fleeing Hitler and rounding up Japanese-Americans during World War II. Currently, we take only tiny numbers of refugees in general and Syrians in particular, and the vetting process is years long and excruciating. The State Department says that those fleeing war-torn Syria already face the most stringent vetting.

The federal government makes refugee policy. While states can deny services, it’s a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause and other civil rights laws to exclude people from benefits based on their race, national origin or religion. As a civil rights lawyer, I would happily take that case.

But there’s a precedent, of sorts, here: the simple illogic of rejecting Syrian refugees to combat terrorism strongly resembles the flawed thinking which drove the odious George Zimmerman case.

A failure of basic reasoning

I never got over the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s killing, which is why I spent the year after the trial writing a book about it, Suspicion Nation.  What gutted me about the case wasn’t just Zimmerman’s defective logic about Martin, but how mainstream it was amongst the American populace.

Trayvon was an unarmed kid with no criminal record walking home with candy and a soft drink. Zimmerman, on his self-appointed neighborhood watch, looked out the window of his car and immediately called the cops to say: “Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy.”  (We all know the rest: contrary to police instructions, Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Trayvon, beginning an altercation that ended with Zimmerman shooting the teenager to death, a trial riddled with stunning errors, and an acquittal on self-defense grounds.)

Why was Trayvon suspicious? It wasn’t the hoodie, or the fact that he was walking slowly in the rain talking on his cell phone. Every time Zimmerman told the story—to the police, to the media, or to the jury via his defense attorneys—it began with two African American burglars who had been in the neighborhood six months earlier. “Unfortunately, it was a match,” Zimmerman’s defense lawyers said. We learned nothing about these entirely unrelated criminals but skin color. That was the one and only match.

Two other black guys committed a crime. Therefore, Trayvon Martin is suspicious and must be followed.

Because in America, when a person of color does something bad, the entire race is impugned. John Gotti, Whitey Bulger, Eric Harris and many other sickening, notoriously prolific killers were white—serial killers are disproportionately white—but no one looks at a white person and becomes quickly suspicious that he’s a mass murderer.

Back to Zimmerman’s illogical but mainstream thinking. It was:

  1. Two black burglars had robbed a house in the neighborhood.
  2. Trayvon was black.
  3. Therefore, Zimmerman’s suspicion of Trayvon was reasonable.

One may as well say:

  1. Nine out of ten child molesters are male.
  2. Eduardo is male.
  3. Therefore, Child Protective Services should take his kids away.

Unfortunately, he’s a match!

And so it is with Syrian refugees.

As 31 governors (at last count) are seeking to exclude them, as the House of Representatives overwhelmingly votes to impose stringent new screening on refugees, the logic is:

  1. One Paris terrorist (maybe; we’re still not totally sure) was a Syrian refugee.
  2. Syrian refugees want to come to the US.
  3. Therefore, Syrian refugees are/can be/have a scary chance of being terrorists.

Nope. Wrong on all counts. One cannot reason backwards from one, two, or a hundred and say all members of that group are wrongdoers. In fact, attributing the crimes of a few to an entire group of people is the very definition of bigotry.

The man was part of a group of mostly European-born attackers, and no one is calling for an end to travel from Europe to the US. About a million refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East and northern Africa have streamed into Europe—218,000 refugees in October alone.) And one, maybe, was a terrorist.

Since 2012, the US has accepted 2,174 Syrian refugees – roughly 0.0007% of America’s total population. Obama has committed to taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year. Were we to take in an additional 10,000 Syrians, they would still only comprise 0.004% of its existing population.

Real vs. imagined threats

Let’s all take a deep breath, consider our implicit biases, and push back against our irrational fear.

If you’re American, you are extremely unlikely to die from terrorism – odds are one in twenty million. You’re three times more likely to be dead after being hit by lightning. How about while traveling abroad? The leading cause of death of American tourists is car accidents, worldwide. (Yet many of us don’t put on seatbelts abroad, because…the locals don’t? So the laws of physics don’t apply there?)

And of course, since you are twenty times as likely to be a victim of gun violence in the US as opposed to other developed countries, your level of safety significantly increases as soon as you leave the country.

You are 35,000 times more likely to die from a heart disease than from a terrorist attack. You are 33,000 times more likely to die from cancer than from ISIS. Obesity is 5,000 to 23,000 times more likely to end your life than a jihadist (sitting is the new terror threat!).

You are 5,000 times more likely to die from a medical error than from Al Qaeda. Fear hospitals. I am not kidding. They’re packed with sick people and human mistakes.

The terrorist threat to your life is so crazy remote that a 2011 report from the National Counter Terrorism Center says you are about as likely to be crushed to death by your television.

Even a toddler represents more risk of death.

We cannot make life entirely safe and risk free. Terrorism is flashy and scary, and looping images of it over and over again boosts TV ratings. But surely our leaders, our media, our resources and our minds should focus on real health and safety risks.

Because we are better than George Zimmerman. Aren’t we?

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