Commentary: Hysteria does not help make sound policy

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By Anne C. RichardThe "Bowling Green Massacre," "Atlanta," and now "last night in Sweden" - these are all Trump administration garbles intended to telegraph hysteria. Or, as the President has tweeted: "THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!"

His alarmist message exaggerates the impact of his travel ban. It vastly overstates the threat from these travelers and ignores the cruel way in which the ban was initially executed.

George W. Bush spoke respectfully of Islam after 9/11. Today, few other elected officials weigh in using measured tones. Many state they are for or against the travel ban and express outrage toward the other side, but you'll hear little in our national debate that provides a cool-headed analysis of the threat, advises Americans to remain calm, and refocuses our attention on real threats.

Instead, the Trump White House and allies on Capitol Hill are alarmists. Spokespeople hype incidents that never happened and mix attacks carried out by those born or raised in this country with those statistically rare ones perpetrated by people entering the country.

The public is told that the vetting for refugees is nonexistent or weak when it is already extensive and thorough. Congressmen conflate the young men in photos walking into Europe (a mix of refugees and migrants) with the refugee families - mostly vulnerable women and children - brought to this country after years of exile and exhaustive vetting.

The executive order ignores the origins of actual attackers and makes innocent people fleeing warzones suspect. Breitbart names and calls for firing the public servants managing refugee programs.

During five years of the Obama administration, I was the assistant secretary of state with oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program. After the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, congressional committees held numerous hearings on the terrorist threat. Even though most of the Paris attackers were born in Europe, members of Congress quickly zeroed in on refugees.

FBI Director James Comey's assertion that, unlike Afghans and Iraqis, he had no data on Syrians, was repeatedly quoted. (Why should the FBI have files on poor Syrian farmers fleeing into Jordan?) The House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted (289-137) to pass a bill to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming to the United States unless three top security officials - the FBI director, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and the director of National Intelligence - vouched for each refugee, at which point even Comey balked.

At his recent Melbourne, Fla., rally, President Trump repeated the completely false assertion that thousands of refugees entered the United States without documentation or vetting. The truth is that no refugee enters the United States until their personal histories are compiled, analyzed, checked, and rechecked against the known facts and extensive government databases. No one can ever truly know what lies in the heart of another - but interviewers for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services come pretty darn close.

As a candidate, Trump recommended "extreme" vetting of refugees, but it was not clear what this term meant. It now appears that proponents want refugee applicants tested to determine whether they share American values.

I've met thousands of refugees, and those resettled to the United States - no matter their origins - tend to be grateful for the opportunity to restart their lives in a place of safety, where their children can have a future. And they are prepared to work hard to make that happen. Isn't this the essence of the American story?

After the Paris attacks, when asked whether there was a risk of allowing refugees in, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington was that rare politician who reminded us that "there's risk getting out of bed in the morning." Should we be vigilant against terrorists? Of course. Will the White House executive order help? So far, it has only done damage.

Want to be afraid? Talk to those who are striving to figure out how to fight the attraction to chiefly young men of pernicious ideologies - from jihadism to white nationalism. But also remember, and be grateful, that very, very few Americans of any stripe follow the madmen who spread nihilism. And consider electing leaders who know that.

President Barack Obama said, "We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks." President Trump has proved that.

Anne C. Richard is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Worldhouse@pwh.upenn.edu

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