Paris, Syria, and the Pursuit of Terror: Saying No to Xenophobia
November 24, 2015
by Craig D. Katzenmiller
“Are you all right?”
“Of course, are you all right? It’s the middle of the night there.”
“Yes, we’re fine, but we wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Well I’m all right. Why are you calling?”
“Terrorists just bombed the Tube.”
Such was the exchange I had with my mother, who called me early in the morning on July 7, 2005. Terrorists had indeed bombed four trains in the London Underground as well as a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. My workmates and I—I was serving an internship in an archive in Westminster—found out about the attack only because an American audience found out about it immediately.
And the American media immediately began calling that attack “London’s 9/11.” Fearsome stuff for American audiences.
Back in London though, I was struck by how ho-hum everyone was about it. We turned the TV in the archive’s conference room to the BBC and watched the updates coming in in real time. And, unlike the small group of us nervously huddled around the TV in my high school library on 9/11, everyone just calmly watched.
“It’s certainly not the Blitz, is it?” said one of the archivists there.
And that comparison immediately contextualized the events for me. To Americans, lives of innocent thousands were in harm’s way, as they were on 9/11; to Englanders, it was a small event, unlikely to repeat itself daily for months and months on end, as the Blitz had done a generation earlier.
We Americans now, for better or worse, view everything though the lens of 9/11, thinking that that event somehow changed things.
Our 9/11 lens has thus tinted the way we view the most recent Paris attacks—most notably, in the days since, in the way we view asylum seekers.
Donald Trump, one party’s current front-runner presidential candidate, said, as reported by the New Yorker, that if he’s elected, these asylum seekers are “going back.” He continued, “They could be ISIS, I don’t know.…This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A two-hundred-thousand-man army, maybe. Or if they sent fifty thousand, or eighty thousand, or a hundred thousand, we got problems, and that could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible, so they’re going back. They’re going back.” It is important to note, as the article points out, he decided not “to cite a source” for his numbers.
At any rate, that’s simple fearmongering, playing off post-9/11 fears so as to stoke his own candidacy on the one hand and our desire for security on the other.
Surely, goes Trump’s “logic,” these brown-skinned Syrian refugees are likely terrorists just like the 9/11 brown-skinned terrorists were terrorists. After all, brown-skinned folks, whether Mexican, Syrian, or American, are the greatest threat to a certain portion of the voting-public’s xenophobic version of the American Dream.
It’s no wonder Trump’s so popular among such a voting-public.
Fear then, the great underwriter of xenophobia, makes mass deportations sound reasonable. And in the fearsome wake of 9/11, Americans are all too happy to allow a threat to be exaggerated. Yet while the notion of mass deportations in the name of security, in the name of safety, is gaining popularly, the blind eye has been turned to the deadly violence already in our midst (to gun violence, for example). It’s easier simply to scapegoat.
And so the notion of deportation, the notion of exclusion, the notion of sacrificing the scapegoat.
That scapegoats would be sacrificed for personal security perhaps betrays the fact that there is a deep idolatry at play here also.
For us Christians, especially, the plight of refugees must seize our attention. We must attentively remember our spiritual roots and how God cared for the alien Israelites in Egypt and how God demanded that Israel likewise, after the Exodus, care for aliens, orphans, and widows. We must be attentive to the flight that the Holy Family took centuries later back to Egypt, fleeing the murderous conditions in their homeland. We must be attentive to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who, in the very earliest centuries, defended Jesus’s messiahship—the notion that in his role as messiah, Jesus united all peoples and turned the powers’ swords into ploughshares—by showing how Christians did not recognize political boundaries, nor did they fight in the empire’s wars. We must be attentive to the fact that ever since St. Benedict penned his Regula in the sixth century, monastic folks have been going to bed every night having just uttered the phrase from Psalm 4 which claims that “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
But more than merely giving our attention to these things, we must live into them. We must name the xenophobic rhetoric of safety and security as idolatrous; we must bear witness to Jesus’s lordship over our lives by rejecting the myth that nationality divides humanity; we must reject wars; and we must care for the widow, orphan, and alien in our midst. Like Egypt welcomed the Holy Family, we must welcome refugees fleeing from a very real threat of death.
All of this, of course, requires that we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. Nonviolence and hospitality require that we rid ourselves of the desire for safety. Being a new father myself, this for me is difficult to imagine at times, but we have to take seriously the notion that our safety comes from God, not fences and so-called smart bombs. We have to take seriously Matthew’s counsel: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” There are other planes of fear to which we are beholden: “rather,” Matthew continues, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Such rightly ordered fear demands that we reorient our lives, that we repent. Therefore, to the sin of scapegoating, we must repent; to the sin of xenophobia, we must repent; to the sin of deportation, we must repent; to the sin of inhospitality, we must repent.
And we must turn to the God whose fearsome identity is in fact love and rest in the security such Love gives. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
Being freed from fear of the stranger and, moreover, from the fear of death, we are enabled to offer welcome even to the brown-skinned stranger, trusting that he who is Love will draw both self and stranger into the cruciform bond of precisely that Love.
In the end, we must rid ourselves of the lens that 9/11 presents our eyes. For, as Stanley Hauerwas so rightly said immediately after 9/11, “Our response is to continue living in a manner that witnesses to our belief that the world was not changed on September 11, 2001. The world was changed during the celebration of Passover in AD 33.”
Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor at Tokens and a newly ordained stay-at-home dad.