Op-Ed: Why Refusing Syrian Refugees Is About Xenophobia, Not ‘Safety’

I’ve heard all sorts of arguments against allowing the Syrian refugees in after the attacks on Paris. None of them are particularly convincing, but perhaps the most disingenuous I’ve seen is the argument it will “keep us safe.”

I call it “disingenuous,” but perhaps I’m being a bit unfair since there are several cognitive biases at play here. But fair or not, there’s no question the argument is garbage, and here’s why.

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Never tell them the odds . . . they won’t understand anyway

Flip a coin. You have a 50 percent chance of it landing on heads or tails. Everyone understands that.

What everyone doesn’t understand is the 50 percent chance only applies to each flip. Thus, if you flip a coin 50 times and it lands heads all 50 times, there’s no guarantee it’ll land on tails for flip 51; it still has a 50 percent chance of either. Individuals who are blind to this effect often fall into the gambler’s fallacy, the clustering illusion, or even the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.

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I use this to illustrate my greater point: humans suck when it comes understanding and applying statistics to decision making. Human beings don’t come with an innate sense of statistics and averages, and we’re very poor judges without extensive mental training to force out the sort of sloppy thinking evolution saddled us with. And even then, you can never truly escape evolutionary wiring; this is something we always have to guard against.

There’s another important bias to know, and it’s the “negativity bias.” This bias further hobbles our ability to understand statistics by skewing our heuristics: we placed a higher importance on negative events simply because we remember them better. Our media really doesn’t help in this regard, either.

Here’s an example of this in action: travelling by plane is actually safer than driving a car, but watching the news, you’d never know you’re nineteen times safer in a jet engine 30,000 feet up than you are in the seat of a car on the expressway.

So, I’ve made my point. Humans are poor judges of statistical events, and it’s hardwired into us because of our evolutionary heritage. What does this have to do with terrorism?

Related: Read George Takei’s Scathing Message To Mayor Who Wants To Throw Syrian Victims In Internment Camps


Terrorism works because of the negativity bias and because of our crappy sense of statistics when applied to decision making. Consider this: terrorism is big, it’s flashy, it’s loud and it’s sudden. It’s meant to trip the negativity bias, and it’s meant to invoke negative emotions. It’s almost like it’s called terrorism or something.

But terrorism is also extremely rare, and it’s rarity is intentional. If it were more common, it wouldn’t be as effective. I say that with full confidence, because there’s been over 300 mass shootings in the United States this year, and we treat mass shootings like we treat tornadoes and hurricanes as a result.

Just how rare is terrorism? As of October, the odds of an individual American being killed in a terrorist attack was 1 in 22 million.

Those are your odds of being killed by in a terrorist attack at home. Abroad it does increase, from 1 in 22 million to 1 in 9.3 million. So modest odds. You have a greater chance of dying from a ladder fall (1 in 2.3 million), from a fireworks accident (1 in 1 million) or from a snake bite (1 in 3.5 million).

Related: ‘Christian’ Repubs Lead House Vote To Reject Syrian Refugees–Statue Of Liberty Weeps

And while some may claim blocking the Syrian refugees is akin to asking someone to hold the ladder, I don’t believe it. There are things that pose a far greater threat to Americans nobody is calling out, least of all these self-proclaimed “champions of safety.”

In 2001, 2,996 Americans died during the terror attacks of 9/11. That’s almost 1.5% the number of people who die each year due to a heart attack. If you honestly cared about Americans, you wouldn’t be blocking their access to healthcare, now would you?

Your odds of dying from a MRSA infection — a “superbug” that’s resistant to antibiotics — is 1 in 197. MRSA kills far more Americans than terrorism, and yet, we’re merrily oblivious we’re fast running out of antibiotics that work on these “superbugs” and the free market won’t come to our rescue, as there’s no money in producing antibiotics.

Where’s the public spending initiatives to help fight these real killers of the American public? Not forthcoming, because Congress, and most of America by extension, is to busy shitting its collective diaper over five-year-old Syrian refugees.

But there’s one last statistic here I want to look at: you are 55 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than you are a terrorist. A police officer poses a larger threat to your safety than a terrorist does.

Where are the right-wing champions of American safety leading the charge against the clear and present danger the American police pose to our population?

Related: City Of Chicago To Gov. Rauner: F*ck You And Your Position On Syrian Refugees


Because it’s not a question of safety. It’s not popular to call the police out for their mistakes, nor to demand more government spending. But it is certainly popular to target Muslims as an entire population, and tar them all as being potential terrorists. And that’s not “protecting Americans,” that’s “being a xenophobic bigot.”

One of the core assumptions of this piece is Daesh sending people through with the Syrian refugees. I can’t say whether that’s a reasonable assumption — Daesh doesn’t strike me as a particularly bright organization, but it seems to me it’d just be easier to throw down the money for a visa than to wait months for screening and processing — but even if they do slip through, there’s a network in place that’s proven somewhat adept at catching terrorists. And if they slip through that, remember: you’re still more likely to die from a dog bite.

Knowing all this, it should be painfully obvious there’s no reason to fear the Syrian refugees — if anything, you should be more terrified of your dog.

Feature image via Instagram

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