Unsettled: Syrian refugees and the politics of fear

File photo. File photo.

You know, it takes a special kind of politician to unite elected officials from all points of the political spectrum. When was the last time you can remember a lone figure whose bold actions drew the same response from his own party and his opponents, from liberals and conservatives, and, indeed, from all right-thinking Americans?

Well, such a man is Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, a Democrat who achieved political infamy last week when he released a statement detailing his view that “it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia,” and went on to favorably invoke President Roosevelt’s decision to “sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”

The reaction to this idiotic missive was swift and merciless, with Bowers’ fellow council members piling on as if it were a WWE free-for-all. They rushed to condemn the statement, calling it “juvenile,” “selfish” and “narcissistic,” while his own Vice Mayor David Trinkle offered a little armchair psychology, noting that Bowers was retiring from the mayorship, and that this was an attention-seeking “way to have another dance.” Bowers even got the two state parties to finally agree on something, with both state Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker and Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck publicly blasting the statement.

But the best response, bar none, came from Captain Hikaru Sulu himself, George Takei, who took to Facebook to excoriate Bowers, and to explain that the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II (including himself) were “decent, honest, hard-working folks,” whose “lives were ruined, over nothing.”

What is truly sad is that Bowers wasn’t expressing an unpopular opinion, he just did it in such a ham-fisted way that even die-hard xenophobes were appalled. [Bowers apologized November 20.] But across the commonwealth, many politicians were voicing the exact same sentiment, just employing less incendiary language. Salem’s Republican Representative Morgan Griffith, for instance, said that it was “better to be safe than to be sorry,” and that “we should consider providing aid to help refugees elsewhere, without bringing them to American soil.”

Indeed, in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, the idea of denying asylum to refugees from the Syrian war is widespread, and the issue has only increased the anti-immigration fervor being stoked by presidential aspirant (and Hair Club for Men poster boy) Donald Trump and his clown car full of Republican Party also-rans.

This sort of knee-jerk anti-refugee reaction is both heartless and absurd, as the very last way that a terrorist would try to make his way into the United States is through the State Department’s laborious, time-consuming refugee resettlement program. It is also, in our humble opinion, completely antithetical to Virginia’s long history of welcoming persecuted and displaced peoples from all over the globe. From the French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 1700s to recent waves of refugees from Vietnam, Iran and South America, Virginia has provided safe haven, hospitality and opportunity to countless families fleeing the horrors of war.

We should not stop now, no matter what some callous, dimwitted, pandering politicians may think.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.