Security is not everything

A woman exits the closed international arrivals hall during protests of President Trump's travel ban outside Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Jan. 29, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Charles Mostoller

(RNS) As somebody who grew up in Belfast in the ’60s and early ’70s, and remembers the vitriol of partisan divide, the stereotyping and scapegoating of the other, the soldiers in the street and helicopters overhead, I understand the desire for security. I understand the desire to be protected. But at what price?

When our desire for security is so great that it diminishes our humanity and our capacity or willingness to see the world through the eyes of another, we lose a precious part of who we were designed to be. Our hearts are hardened, calcified.

As a Northern Ireland Protestant living in Belfast at that time, Roman Catholics were unknown to me. They were a threat to our “religion,” a menace to the treasured union of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom. We were not brothers and sisters in Christ worshipping the same Lord, all made in the image of God.

It was as if the lessons of the Crucifixion, the Book of Acts, Paul’s letters and the Protestant Reformation did not exist. Nothing to learn from St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, or many others who chose the simple way, the way of love, the way of Jesus.

Those early days in Belfast shaped me — and not for the better.

I couldn’t wait to escape, and in my early 20s, I did.

I wasn’t a refugee: I hadn’t personally suffered horrendously the way so many have. I had education and opportunity. I was an economic migrant and ultimately a successful one.

The troubles in Northern Ireland continued for many years until one terrible day in Enniskillen there was an IRA bombing in the middle of the market square. It was Remembrance Sunday 1987 and the IRA detonated a bomb killing multiple people. I will never forget the images and what came next.

There, in the rubble, the cameras captured a father holding the hands of his dying daughter. A wonderful Christian named Gordon Wilson. Even as others vowed retaliation, he declared, “I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession, she was a pet. She’s dead, she’s in heaven, and we’ll meet again.”

The words he spoke went global, touching the hearts of millions and accelerating the peace process in my troubled homeland.

Today, 45 years after I left Belfast and now a proud American citizen, I have the privilege of leading a nongovernmental organization where every day courageous Christ followers willingly go into places of extreme insecurity and even direct danger, places like Syria, Iraq, Darfur, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I lead an organization that cares passionately about the most vulnerable, that works tirelessly to equip staff and volunteers who daily welcome refugees who have fled persecution, war, and despair to come to America — a land of hope and new beginnings for them.

If I have learned one thing from the examples of Gordon Wilson, of our staff, and of those we serve, it is that love is a more powerful source of human fulfillment than so much of what our society values in the Western world. When we come alongside those who are suffering, those who are in need, when we give just a little of ourselves, it is we who gain the most.

We were made for purpose and it cannot be achieved when we stay in a cocoon of safety oblivious to our fellow humans. When we live in fear, we are diminished.

On Friday (Jan. 27), President Donald Trump announced a series of policy changes, ostensibly designed to ensure the safety of our nation, including an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, a temporary moratorium on all refugee resettlement, and a dramatic reduction in the total number of refugees considered for admission to our country.

The facts are that our nation already has a remarkably thorough — one might say extreme — vetting process to which each refugee admitted to the U.S. is subjected, a process more intensive than that required of any other category of immigrant or visitor to the United States.

You have to go back to the 1970s, to the era when I was still in Belfast, to come up with a single case of an American citizen who was killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by someone who came to the country as a refugee — and our vetting processes have been dramatically improved since then. The Cato Institute calculates the odds of the average American being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist in a given year at 1 in 3.64 billion.

The risks are incredibly minimal, based on the data of past experience — but no one can guarantee absolute safety. While, gratefully, no Americans have lost their lives in recent years, there have been an exceptionally small number of cases of individuals who entered the country as refugees who have been implicated in attempted terrorist activity.

Let us recognize that life is full of uncertainty and there are many ways tragedy can strike, most of them much more likely than this particular risk.

Let us not compromise our compassion. It is what makes us human. And it is the way of Jesus.

Tim Breene is the CEO of World Relief, a global humanitarian organization that is one of nine national resettlement agencies that partners with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees.

About the author

Tim Breene


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  • It’s a security matter to keep refugees, especially the brown ones, out of our country.

    It’s not a security matter to have any regulation whatsoever on firearms, from a Derringer to an AK47.

  • “…there are many ways tragedy can strike, most of them much more likely than this particular risk.”

    …such as petroleum-related explosions (refineries, pipelines, railroad tank cars), oil spills, lead and other contaminants in drinking water, collapsed bridges and tunnels, unmaintained roads, collapsed buildings and other structures,…

    Yeah, but who needs safety regulations (“we have way too many”), or structural inspections (“too few inspectors, but we need to shrink government”), or critical maintenance (“increase the budget? NO!”)?

    Gee, governmenting is hard…

  • As an officer directly involved in Iraqi and Afghani reconstruction and liason work, I can attest there is no way to adequately vet people from tribal and radicalized areas of the Middle East. There is nothing even close to the types of record keeping that we know in the west. In many areas there are no such things as birth certificates are even driver licenses. There is very little way to explore a person’s past, known associates, and so forth minus personal interviews. Personal interviews have never proven terribly reliable.

    Every single human being who has shot at me or otherwise tried to kill me, or has taken the life of one of my friends and colleagues, was a radicalized jihadi from one of the areas that President Trump has designated as requiring additional security limitations. I support these limitations are reasoned and necessary because the world is not a nice place, life isn’t fair, and the purpose of the government is to protect the life of its citizens even if it causes inconvenience.

    And Ben & Spuddie, I don’t really care what you think. Fortunately I’m in a position to exercise far more influence over this process and application than you ever shall be.

    🙂 Man I love having a new CINC. I enjoy going to work every day even if I have to fight DC traffic.

  • Both the Canadian and American Forces hung Afghan interpreters out to dry in the past. Hopefully you can improve that track record.

  • So you are saying you dont really know the process of how refugee status is granted and you are taking wild guesses as to how its done. Preferring to err on the side of panic rather than think things through.

    Unless you are actually in USCIS or at least familiar with how they work, you are arguing from a point of ignorance. Even the secretary of state general James Mattis considers this order counterproductive and dumb. The Pentagon has been trolling the White House on this from the outset.

    Since the ban is very clearly a religious test, it violates many levels of laws including the immigration and naturalization act.

    Since it included permanent resident aliens as well, it included people already vetted by our immigration system. This has nothing to do with vetting for potential terrorists and everything to do with lazy pandering to his support base.

  • ISIS is already scoring a propaganda coup from Trumps order. They like keeping their victims from fleeing to the US.

  • I’m not sure about what this has to do with my comment, but sure. Let’s not do anything about the gun violence in this country. After all, it’s so much worse and so many other countries

  • It’s important that we listen to Mr. Breene. He has boots on the ground experience with just what domestic terrorism is and how fear changes people for the worse. If we continue in the way we are going we’ll lose what makes America “the Beautiful.”

    “When our desire for security is so great that it diminishes our humanity and our capacity or willingness to see the world through the eyes of another, we lose a precious part of who we were designed to be. Our hearts are hardened, calcified.”

    This is a big part of the problem and the divide between those who support refugees and diversity and those who don’t. Living in a bubble of similar people while avoiding contact and hardening one’s heart against the Other is what afflicts a large share of the Right. Contact with refugees, listening to them, getting to know them, walking a mile in their shoes is what puts cracks in that hard heart.

    Travel, even within the USA or North America, to places where people live differently than you do. Pay attention, learn what you can about their lives, the way they see the world and themselves in it. Take risks with your way of thinking. Adjust when needed.

    Be brave. Step out. The country needs you.

  • Without providing current specifics, asonofsocrates detailed his experience in the Middle East as a member of the military, he hints at his ability to exercise influence and declares his proximity to DC. On that basis, it is fair to suggest that he does in fact know what he’s talking about.

  • None of that translates to a knowledge of the process for vetting refugees in our immigration system. There is a ton of outright fiction in a lot of the anti refugee position. Most of the refugees are not military age males. One cannot make a claim for better vetting without knowing what the process was to begin with.

    There are tons of people making loud arguments on this subject without any basis in fact. Most anti immigration views practically require ignorance of the immigration system. His area of knowledge doesn’t apply here. So I am not going to pretend he is any different from the rest of the modern day “Know Nothings”

  • As a follower of Christ, I live mindful that EVERYONE is my brother, not just my family or neighbor or other Americans. There is no way to screen everyone 100%- not refugees, not your neighbor, not the gun owner nor the man with mental illness, but refugees get more scrutiny than most everyone around us. How can we live in comfort and safety and ignore the plight of so many living in unimaginable circumstances. There will be always be some people who cause harm, but failing to help 50,000 refugees for the fear that one person may cause harm? Would the life or comfort of 10, 50 or 100 Americans be more valuable in the eyes of God than 50,000? I cannot be so arrogant as to think that God would be pleased that a few American lives are of greater value than the thousands that flee their countries for safety. Imagine yourself in their lives? Imagine yourself at the time of Judgement when God sees our hearts? Life is full of risks. Choose love, compassion and kindness to others over our own desire for comfort, safety, fear of the unknown. Pat

  • Well, I think you are making an assumption without sufficient evidence with regard to what he does or does not know.

  • General Mattis, the secretary of defense, a man with far more experience and access to the kind of information he boasts about is calling this policy stupid and counterproductive. Think about that for a minute.

  • Perhaps you can enlighten us with your amazing insight into this process that enables you to declare anyone who disagrees with you “know nothings”.

  • I don’t see any “religious test” but a “geography” test. There are plenty of areas where Islam is dominant or influential but terror is not being generated at nearly as high a rate, if at all in those area. These are areas with a particular set of cultural beliefs that stimulate terror and radicalization and Islam is a factor, but only one of many. You calling it a religious test demonstrates your lack of knowledge of the region.

    And yes, as a liason officer I am somewhat familiar with USCIS and a well known and unclassified problem is the lack of infrastructure that produces a documented record of individuals in many of these area. You cannot vet a person who has no birth certificate, school record and so forth because there are none. You can’t send in agents to interview their neighbors in these areas (as we do in many other areas). You can’t query to the government about their records, because in too many cases there are none. There are at least 200,000 Syrian passports that are stolen or forged. This is a known fact. IN too many cases the only vetting tool available is an interview with person and available family that is looking at discrepancies in what the individual reports. It can be helpful but not nearly accurate.

    And we have ISIS promise to utilize the refugee system to infiltrate terror.

    And we have the NY Times reporting hard empirical evidence that leaders of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have guided homegrown terrorists in the US in the past 12 months, something that was known but up till now was not public knowledge.

    Spud, there is alot we know that you do not. This is your weakness and your arrogance, and unfortunately this kind of weakness and arrogance can get American citizens killed in their own land.

  • You don’t see a religious test because you missed the part where they were changing the order to make allowances for non Muslim residents of those countries. Either way the order was a fiasco from the start. Nobody bothered to consult with the necessary legal authorities who would be implementing it.

    The choice of countries doesn’t make sense from a history of sponsorship of terrorism sense either. These were countries the US had military intervention going on.

    “You cannot vet a person who has no birth certificate, school record and so forth because there are none. You can’t send in agents to interview their neighbors in these areas (as we do in many other areas). You can’t query to the government about their records”

    This has been the case for virtually ALL refugees coming here. It is a given. For the most part they come from countries we do not have diplomatic ties to or are in such messed up shape that such records would be impossible to find. To use this argument now, after dealing with such issues for decades is in bad faith. Obviously this is not a new situation nor needs to be treated as one.

    “And we have ISIS promise to utilize the refugee system to infiltrate terror.”

    That just means you are gullible. They are celebrating the efforts to demonize refugees. They congratulated Trump for his efforts. Sowing fear of refugees makes the job of ISIS that much easier. It keeps people under their thumb and prevents recruitment of assets for our efforts. Even the secretary of defense, General Mattis is calling this order stupid. He always opposed this nonsense.

    “And we have the NY Times reporting hard empirical evidence that leaders of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have guided homegrown terrorists in the US in the past 12 months, something that was known but up till now was not public knowledge.”

    Gotta link to that story? We have been getting a lot of stories about ISIS deliberately sowing suspicion of Syrian refugees. Including terrorists carrying fake Syrian passports in the Paris attacks.

    You are so willing to have thousands of people murdered or enslaved out of the remote fear of a terrorist attack. ISIS couldn’t ask for a better stooge.

    BTW taking in Syrian refugees couldn’t possibly be worse than the Mariel Boatlift.The rise in crime resulting from it turned Miami into the murder capital of the US for some time in the 80’s.

  • I don’t rely on nativist sources. All of them flat out lie to demonize immigrants. The arguments themselves show so little knowledge of the system. Objections to things which either don’t exist or are complete misrepresentations of facts.

    You dont see this stuff from people who have worked in or with the immigration system to any degree.

  • I am also a follower of Christ. But most of the refugees are not. So, I guess I can’t agree with you. I am all for those who are Christian, but not those who are not. As Mr. Obama said in his writings –“if something were to happen, i would fall on the side of the Muslims.” So would those who are.
    I would more than welcome those who are Christian. They are being persecuted. By all means, I hope our President will see the difference.

  • First off, research your quotes before spouting off nonsense. That is not what Obama wrote, & im certain you did not read the book you claim to quote from. Here are the actual passages that have since been misconstrued for their own racist political agenda: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/06/obamas-dreams-of-my-father/
    Also, if you were a true follower of Christ’s teachings you would not pick & choose those who are worthy of help.

  • Are you dumb enough to make threats in an online discussion?

    Ben Franklin still would consider you a fool.

  • What threat? Are you “triggered” by common sense? Maybe you are a troll, you have called me dumb and fool and you consider this a “conversation”. Who is the “fool”? Did you vote for Ben Franklin? I didn’t think so. His thoughts on politics and government are slightly out dated. You and Ben should go fly a kite in a thunderstorm. AND, I could care less what Ben would think of me, and even less what you think. Troll someplace else!

  • The Troll is back! I was beginning to wonder if you were an Arab, a brand new preacher or a liberal. Two out of three is not bad. At least you are a persistent, arrogant troll.
    I’ll wager where you live has police and government. That’s security, even by old Ben’s standard. You may even have added security with mom and dad living upstairs.
    You could avoid being labeled a looser if you would quote Jesus instead of Ben Franklin and yourself. God’s chosen city has the best security on earth. Tell me and others: Are they fools as well? Scripture warns us about calling anyone a fool, you should read up on it.
    Raca, I’ll be waiting for the troll rebuttal.

  • I don’t have 43 followers to impress. I don’t have any. How many do you have? Oh yes 43.
    How many of these do you wear every day?

    Proverbs 12:15
    15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.

    Proverbs 13:16
    16 Every prudent man acts with knowledge, But a fool lays open his folly.

    Proverbs 17:28
    28 Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.

    Proverbs 18:2
    2 A fool has no delight in understanding, But in expressing his own heart.

    Proverbs 20:3
    3 It is honorable for a man to stop striving, Since any fool can start a quarrel.

    Proverbs 26:11
    11 As a dog returns to his own vomit, So a fool repeats his folly.

    Proverbs 29:9
    9 If a wise man contends with a foolish man, Whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace.

  • Apropos of nothing
    “A dog looks up to a person. A cat looks down upon a person. A pig considers us their equal”
    -Winston Churchill. 🙂

  • Churchill? Another true leader of the modern world. You are parked on this channel like a troll. 26,000 posts tells me you are Troll Royalty. Go ahead and mock the scriptures Raca.
    Proverbs 26:4
    4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.

    So I will not.

    Proverbs 17:28
    28 Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.

    Why don’t you try being perceptive……………………………..