If the point of terrorism is to inflame, divide and frighten, surely the best response is to do just the opposite — to not give in to rage and anger and blindly lash out, to unite and not fan the flames of fear. After the awful attacks on Paris by ISIS last Friday, the French people found their voice in a few simple words, "Je suis Paris" or "I am Paris," a showing of solidarity and support. Meanwhile, nine U.S. governors, at last count, demonstrated how not to respond to terrorism, announcing that they oppose allowing Syrian refugees to settle in their states.
See the difference? One reflects compassion, unity and strength. The other is a quick cave to the terrorists, a signal that even before authorities can conduct a full investigation of the attacks to discover what, if any, role the recent wave of immigration from Syria might have played in them, governors in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas and Michigan are throwing out the white flag and pointing a finger at people who are themselves seeking to escape terrorism. This isn't prudent behavior (even with the mounting evidence of Syrian links to the Paris attackers), it's cheap, panicked, cowardly and irrational xenophobia and, for lack of a better word, un-American.
If the people of this nation learned anything from 9/11, surely it's the danger posed by an unthinking, emotional response to acts of terror. That's what can cause a nation to nearly scrap its constitution, ignore due process and lose its very identity; to invade countries on trumped up evidence of a threat; to torture suspects; and run off-shore prisons that would make a dictator proud and serve mostly to help terrorists recruit new members. That's what terrorists want — chest-thumping, outsized reactions to the danger they pose. They want democracies to act undemocratic, they want people to cower in fear, they want to draw others into their fight and unwittingly help destabilize the political structures they seek to topple.
That's not to minimize real suffering. What happened in Paris was horrible. At least 129 people were killed, many in a particularly grisly and cold-blooded execution-style manner. Add this to the apparent involvement of the Islamic State in the downing of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago, and it's clear that the U.S. and its allies must recalibrate the threat posed by ISIS from a mostly regional organization that kidnaps and murders Westerners to a more sophisticated global terrorism presence. The response of civilized nations will have to be more sophisticated and comprehensive than any stepped up bombing of military targets in Syria. It will require a broad and unified campaign that is aimed at the root causes of ISIS — the poverty, ignorance, religious extremism and injustices that plague that region of the world.
What is particularly unhelpful is to assign the terrorists more power than they actually have. On their most evil day, terrorists can't hold a candle to drunk drivers and ordinary criminals for killing innocent people. If another Paris attack of equal bloodshed happened tomorrow, the tally of the dead would still fall short of Baltimore's murder total that's already topped 300 for the year. Nationwide, gun violence has taken at least 100 times more American lives than terrorism over the last 14 years, and that's including 9/11. And the public appears to be highly selective in its outrage, too — the attack on Garissa University where 147 Kenyans were killed by militants from al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab last April hardly got this level of attention, a reminder that not all lives seem to matter equally.
The 2016 presidential race is in full swing so we can expect candidates to spout some pretty foolish things in the days ahead. The hawks will have their say and so will the anti-immigrant crowd as well as those who wish to draw us into a religious war. But let us not forget that at its heart, what happened in Paris was a crime that needs to be investigated. Its perpetrators need to be caught and given a fair trial. That will take time, as will determining the proper response to an evolving ISIS and a changing political landscape. The only thing that's certain beyond the horror of what happened on Nov. 13 is the importance of not succumbing to our worst instincts, to not give in to the terrorists, to not simply lash out blindly and to take actions that will only make matters worse.