Oops. Caught myself again. Hate that. Just yesterday I wrote about brave people who face down mobs, reaching all the way back to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for a case study (Colonel Sherburn, Chapter 22). But then I’m sitting at my desk counting dust motes, and I think, "Wait, before we get to Huckleberry Finn, what about Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and what he just said about refugees and danger?"
No. I’m not going there. I totally disagree with him about the Trinity toll road. So what if he just spoke to a national audience and made a wonderful, non-demagogue speech defending Syrian refugees? What did he say about the Trinity toll road?
I’m sitting at my desk with my hands out doing the balancing thing. Trinity toll road. Massive human suffering. Oh, no! Did I just walk out the front door with my priorities down again? OK. It’s really hard to do this — for me, anyway — but sometimes we just have to lay down our local feuds and look at each other in a larger light. Here goes.
Last Saturday when Rawlings was interviewed briefly on MSNBC about Syrian refugees, he made several important points in about two and a half minutes — things I haven’t heard anybody else say with quite the same clarity no matter how long they spoke:
He said, “Words do make a difference in this tough time," a point I tried to make yesterday about the counter-example of Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, whose Islamophobic fear-mongering has brought out the worst in her own community. All of our words make a difference, but the words of elected leaders like Rawlings and Van Duyne make a bigger difference, because they are assumed to speak for their communities.
Rawlings uttered a quick, tough rebuttal of the notion that the terrorists who attacked Paris were speaking for all Muslims: “ISIS is no more Islamic,” he said, “than the Nazi senior staff was Christian.”
He warned that the way we react to the current crisis can significantly alter who and what we are as Americans: “It matters for us as individuals, as citizens of the United States, how we are changing because of this issue. We need to be very careful, as Christ-following folks like myself, how we would deal with this issue of strangers and whether we are going to let them in.”
The interviewer asked Rawlings about the 1-percent fear factor: Even if our systems of protection can keep us 99 percent safe, what about the 1 percent chance? Rawlings talked about the rigorous vetting process for refugees:
“There is never a 100 percent guarantee. Safety is my number one concern, as it is Governor Abbott’s. We’ve got to make sure they’re safe. This is a 21-step process to get in, 18 to 24 months to jump through these hoops.”
And finally he hit on the central irony in all of the fearfulness some people are feeling for Syrian refugee, that we seem to be so utterly powerless to do anything about the much greater danger we American citizens pose to each other.
He said, “I am more fearful of large gatherings of young white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up, but we don’t isolate young white men on this issue.”
Why did it take someone so long to say that? How do we miss that point? And shouldn’t Rawlings get major credit for saying it, even if his position on the Trinity toll road is mistaken? That was a question. I’m still doing the thing with my hands.
How do we even manage to go to the movie any more, or drop off kids at preschool, or attend a political rally, or go to church, given the possibility that some basement-dwelling, white, video-game-addicted fiend will appear suddenly in a bizarre action-figure costume and start spraying us with bullets?
How can we have that nightmare staring straight into our faces, ignore it and then start screaming instead about women in hijabs and terrified, hungry children? Something is insanely out of whack here.
I should point out, Rawlings didn’t say any of that. I did. But what Rawlings did say was much more important than anything I could say, because of who and what he is. After I played the video, I felt enormous gratitude that a person of his stature, an elected leader who speaks for the city I live in, had the courage to say those things at a time when other leaders — many of whom know better — are playing to the mob instead.
Last September Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan urged the Obama administration to approve 50,000 extra immigrant visas, many specifically from Syria, to my old hometown, Detroit, because of the huge positive impact Snyder said Syrian immigrants would have on Detroit’s famously beleaguered economy.
“Isn’t this a great way that doesn’t involve large-scale financial contributions from the federal government to do something dramatic in Detroit?” he asked.
The Detroit area, in fact, already has a Middle Eastern population of more than 200,000, centered mainly in the suburb of Dearborn where immigrants from all over the Middle East have transformed a ghost town into a thriving community. At least a part of their success springs from the resilience of people who have lived in places even tougher than Detroit, as I witnessed as a reporter in Detroit decades ago when Chaldeans — Eastern Rite Catholics from Iraq — first started taking over small stores in Detroit that everybody else had just given up on.
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That was the first time I ever saw a store clerk with crossed cartridge bandoleers on his chest. Let me tell you. Nobody messed with the Chaldeans.
So now the news about Snyder is that barely two months after begging President Obama for more Syrians, he has joined the chorus of screaming Mimi Republican governors vowing to bar all Syrian refuges from within their borders. This is an elected leader whose own recent words betray that he knows better than this, but now he is singing in the choir of fear anyway, probably for the most crass political reasons tied to the upcoming presidential elections.
When you see how low somebody like Snyder will stoop for advantage, then it becomes all the more impressive when a person like Rawlings stands up and takes the heat for decency and truth.
I must offer one footnote, however. In the days ahead, I will attempt to find out how Governor Snyder feels about the Trinity toll road. I may have to change this up a little.