A pair of runaway slaves fleeing the antebellum South, arriving in Boston. A family of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, arriving in New York. A baby boy fleeing the destruction of his home world of Krypton, arriving in Kansas. Most Americans know what must be done with such people. They must be taken in. Given a chance. Allowed to become an equal part of the American story.
How many Americans today would think it right to send the slaves back to the plantation, the Jews back to Europe, the infant Superman back into space? The very idea seems abominable, absurd—un-American.
Why, then, is there such an outcry over accepting refugees from places like Syria? From places that have been bombed into rubble or fallen under the control of psychopathic, sadistic, murdering gangs? What distinguishes these refugees from the slaves, from the Jews, from Kal-El?
One currently potent answer appears to be that it’s because these refugees are Muslims. And Muslims kill Americans. So they must not be let in. But Americans kill Americans too. Indeed, they do so at more than four times the rate at which the British kill the British, the Indonesians kill the Indonesians and the Chinese kill the Chinese. An American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is vanishingly small.
Nonetheless, over the past 15 years Americans have become thoroughly terrorized. In this, the terrorists have succeeded. They have been helped by much of the American media. “Under attack!” makes better click bait than “Lightning killed far more people this year than terrorists—again.” And the terrorists have been helped by many American politicians who use fear to sell themselves, to sell their own personal political product.
Fear is potent. Fear can make it difficult to behave decently, to do the right thing, to take in desperate refugees. Fear can warp a society, change its values, transform it into something monstrous. Fear must be resisted. The most potent antiterrorism defense in the world costs nothing and is available to all. It is courage.
It takes courage to jump off the high diving board into a pool. It takes courage to leave the beach for the waves after watching Jaws. (As a child, I didn’t do so for weeks.) It takes courage to choose the subway seat next to the Middle Eastern–looking guy with a beard and a backpack. And it takes courage not to condemn countless families to unimaginable suffering or perhaps horrific deaths because maybe, just maybe, one of them might want to murder someone someday.
Life isn’t perfectly safe. We’re all going to die eventually. Something is going to get us. Courage is about living with decency in the face of that reality. Courage is a choice. A daily, hourly choice. Terrorists offer an invitation to be terrorized, to lose perspective. It is up to each of us whether to accept that invitation. And for the country of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” that choice is a particularly poignant one. No land can aspire to be the land of the free, unless it aspires also to be the home of the brave.
Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and other novels