In just a few short months, the response to refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East has gone from one of compassion and welcome, to one of fear and condemnation. Over and over again, we are hearing that we shouldn’t help refugees because they are terrorists, and that helping them puts our lives at risk.
We cannot assure you that among the millions of genuine refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, there isn’t a single person who is trying to take advantage of the situation.
What we can tell you is that the threat posed by potential terrorists is negligible. In the last decade, 85 people were killed by domestic terrorist attacks in the US. In the same time period, more than 300,000 people were killed in gun-related incidents, and more than 320,000 people died in car accidents. Some scientists have calculated the risk of dying in a terrorist attack as one in over 9 million.*
With the risk of dying from a terrorist attack so low, why are we so afraid of it? This phenomenon is examined by Andrew Shaver in the Washington Post. His conclusion? Basic human psychology.
“Scholars have repeatedly found that individuals have strong tendencies to miscalculate risk likelihood in predictable ways. For instance, individuals’ sense of control directly influences their feeling about whether they are susceptible to a given risk. Thus, for instance, although driving is more likely to result in deadly accidents than flying, individuals tend to feel that the latter is riskier than the former [as it gives control to the pilot] … When people dread a particular hazard, and when it can harm large numbers at once, it’s far more likely that someone will see it as riskier than it is …”
All of this isn’t to say that people who have a strong fear of terrorism are wrong to feel that way. It’s to say that it is basic human nature, and we are all affected by it. But once we recognize why we have such a disproportionate fear of things, we are able to control our responses to them.
Everything we do in life involves risk. In an average year, around 200 people die from eating contaminated food, 25 babies drown in the bath, and 20 people die from falling out of bed.** But in light of this information, I don’t think anybody is going to start sleeping on the floor, bathing their infants in the shower, or start growing all their own food. Over 3,000 people die every day in car accidents, and yet we still get in our cars every single day without giving it a second thought.
We cannot allow fear to rule our lives, especially those fears of horrifying, yet insignificant risks. If we do, we are hurting not only ourselves, but when we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear of terrorism, we are also hurting refugees and others in need.
In 1939, the St Louis set sail from Germany, carrying over 900 Jewish people. Most of them had permission to enter the United States, but would have to wait in Cuba for several years until they could be included in the German quota. But Cuba wouldn’t let the passengers disembark, and eventually turned the ship away entirely. Some desperate passengers even cabled US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, begging to be allowed entry into the US. But the ship and all of its passengers were forced to return to Europe. Several other European countries offered to take in the passengers until their number came up in the United States. Tragically, this didn’t come soon enough, and as war spread throughout Europe, more than 250 of the St Louis passengers were eventually killed in the Holocaust.
Why were countries so reluctant to accept Jewish refugees? Fear. Fear of the economic impact of refugees, and also fear that Nazi spies, disguised as refugees, would infiltrate the host nation and advance the Nazi agenda. We now know that that fear was unfounded, that the Jewish refugees were fleeing the Nazis, and that there was not one case where a Jewish refugee was found to have helped the Nazis.
In 1965, a woman, B. Buitenrust Hettema, wrote a letter to the editor of a Dutch newspaper. “We live,” she wrote. “Many of those whom we are about to remember would also live today if we had a little bit more courage, a little bit more responsibility, a little less cowardice, a little less love of ease.”
We can’t promise you that there is no risk of terrorists trying to take advantage of the refugee crisis. What we can tell you is that there are millions of people – men, women and children – whose lives have been destroyed by violence, and who are only looking for a safe place to rebuild their lives. Many of these people, particularly the Yazidis fleeing Iraq, have been victims of terrorism themselves, and do not want to perpetrate it, but to escape it.
Psalm 73:1-3 says, “The Lord Himself watches over you.” We know that we live in scary times, but in such times it is more important than ever that we hold firm in our Christian values and have faith that God will watch over us as we put aside our fears to follow His example and help those who are suffering.