In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt told Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That summed up the dynamics of an economic downturn where people stopped borrowing and spending, for the simple reason that they were afraid. The Great Depression was so miserable because policy-makers repeatedly failed to understand the enemy, that most basic of human emotions: fear.
In fighting terrorism, fear is not the only thing we have to fear. There really is an organization that calls itself the Islamic State, and there really are a small number of madmen across the world, some with no connection to IS, dreaming of Armageddon. They are driven by nihilism and death-lust, and yes, they do wish us a violent end. But excessive fear of them is dangerous and counterproductive.
A fringe cult can't harm our tolerant, liberal society – but our fear can. Terrorism is not powerful enough to defeat us. But if we are not careful, we may be weak or foolish enough to hurt ourselves.
IS, a successor group to Al-Qaeda, can kill and murder. It is doing a fine job of destroying parts of Syria and Iraq (though others, notably the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, have authored more death and destruction). It may even have been involved in exporting terrorism to the West in the Paris attacks. It will almost surely try to do so again. But IS poses no existential threat to any Western country. It isn't remotely strong enough. It can't conquer Canada, and the only way it can change our society – our tolerant, open, law-abiding society where all are welcomed and respected – is if, in reacting to the threat, we overreact.
This week, many American politicians decided to see what electoral benefit they could get out of overreacting. The governors of more than half the states of the United States said they did not want any Syrian refugees. They don't have the legal authority to make that stick, but one of the bodies with that power, the U.S. House of Representatives, this week overwhelmingly passed a bill to halt the White House's extremely modest plan for bringing in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. A lot of lawmakers think that miserly response to the world's greatest humanitarian crisis is in fact too generous.
The bill, supported not only by Republicans but also by many members of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, would compel senior administration officials to personally sign off on each individual Syrian refugee admitted to the U.S. Such a roadblock will kill the refugee program.
The bill is not likely to become law, because it still has to get through the Senate, and unless it receives two-thirds support in both houses, Mr. Obama can veto it. But it passed with a supermajority in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he favours setting up a database to register and track all American Muslims. The American bias against Syrian refugees, because of an exaggerated fear that a terrorist might be hiding among them, is that pronounced.
Last year, Canada accepted 260,000 landed immigrants. That's 5,000 people a week, every week. About 10 per cent of them were refugees. Canada has been taking in these numbers for decades, and the process has become so smooth and banal, and so much part of the underlying hum of the country, that it's barely noticed.
The banality of Canada's immigration and refugee flow is the program's greatest success. There is no fuss, no controversy and no chaos. Five thousand arrivals a week is to news as January snow is to weather. What a contrast to Europe, where immigration evokes heated passions on both the right and left, with the far right increasingly making gains on the claim that immigration is chaos. Repeated mishandling of the immigrant and visible minority files in many European countries, and growing fear of people of different backgrounds, provide ammunition for that view.
In Canada, in contrast, immigration has long happened quietly, steadily and Canadian-ly. It works without controversy, because most of us don't even notice it's working. Happy is the country where immigration's as boring as running water.
Over the next five and a half weeks, however, the Liberal government plans to make immigration considerably more "exciting." To meet a rushed political deadline no one wants it to keep, Ottawa plans to land 25,000 Syrian refugees before Jan. 1. The 25,000 figure is if anything too modest – over the coming months and years, Canada can take many more. But the exceptionally tight time frame is courting trouble. Is the Liberal government hoping to create its own wedge issue out of the refugee crisis, and betting it can whip up public sentiment opposite to that which the U.S. Congress is counting on?
Canada takes in 260,000 immigrants a year without breaking a sweat and without needing to create special camps to house and hold people. The Liberal refugee plan, largely still under wraps as we went to press, apparently will not follow that model. Instead, the government is making plans for temporarily housing thousands of Syrians on military bases. Ontario's health minister this week mused about having to reopen decommissioned hospitals.
The fear of terrorists hiding among the refugees is vastly overblown. The fear that a rushed movement of people will be even a little bit chaotic, and for no good reason, thereby undermining support for immigration and refugees, is not.
The refugees fleeing terror in Syria deserve to be welcomed to Canada. They deserve to have a chance to live in freedom, in our society of peace, order and good government. There's a refugee crisis in Syria. But only if the Trudeau government plays games with the issue will there be a crisis over refugee arrivals in Canada.