LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Context is a Casualty


There’s a saying in regards to war, nationalism, and human tendency; “The Truth” is the first casualty of any conflict. Facts simplify the truth into easy-to-consume chunks, leaving context in the rubble of discourse. The process of providing context is usually long, complex, and ultimately unsatisfying.

On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that referenced the September 11 attacks, going on to state that existing standards of review are inadequate. It states persons admitted since the attacks have been implicated in various terrorist plots, and that those whose actions stand in opposition to American values should not be admitted into the nation. What follows is a mish-mash of restrictions, legal jargon and authorizations that would take a short book to explain fully.

We are going to focus on context. In the social and mass media circus following the order, three points were made. First, both Carter and Obama signed restrictions on immigration from specific nations. Two, refugees are not screened properly and are admitted too easily. Three, President Trump’s order will stem the tide of terrorists in the U.S. and prevent future attacks.

President Carter signed an Executive Order levying economic sanctions and travel bans against Iran in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Embassy Hostage Crisis, and the nascent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The order sought to curtail transfers and economic support for the Revolution, either by individuals or by seized Iranian enterprises such as oil or trade. The restrictions on movement applied to American citizens, who could not travel to or from Iran, and any funding or transfers of assets to Iran in support of the revolutionary government were prohibited and seized. Iranian nationals residing in the U.S. of non-immigrant status were placed under the authority of the State Department and the Attorney General.

Though the issuance of visas and other travel documents were subject to greater scrutiny, refugee programs were neither suspended, nor was there preference given save for humanitarian considerations. A specific event that did not affect properly cleared individuals, refugees or migrants prior to or following the order.

President Obama authorized a “pause” in the processing of Iraqi refugees and immigrants for six months during 2011 in response to two Iraqi-born individuals confession of aiding insurgent activities in Iraq. The two men were discovered to have been connected to bomb-making in Iraq, having slipped through vetting procedures by fabrication and omission.

However, the phrase “pause” is inappropriate, for although the rate of admissions of Iraqis slowed, it did not cease throughout the period. The pause that wasn’t a pause allowed the FBI and other federal agencies to improve their own screening and vetting procedures, though not without consequences; an Iraqi interpreter was assassinated while waiting to enter the U.S.

Throughout the pause, admissions from Iraq was slowed, but neither ceased nor banned outright, green card holders were not impacted, nor were immigrants and refugees from other nations. The nations listed on the Obama-era list of “nations of concern,” used as a red herring by the current administration, does not include the nations of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, where the September 11th hijackers came from.

Under President Obama, Syrian refugees faced a one to two year screening period in which they first submitted a request to the United Nations while remaining either overseas or within UN-monitored zones. The State Department was then contacted, which began a process of checks and interviews that involved various national criminal and foreign databases, and medical screening procedures. If lucky, applicants could expect to enter the U.S. with a visa and eventually settle in coordination with a voluntary resettlement body working alongside the DHHS.

According to Department of Homeland Security data for 2015, out of 23,000 applications submitted to the U.S. by the UN, only 2,000 were accepted and cleared. This process in its current form was heavily influenced by developments in 2011, such as the previously mentioned Iraqis implicated in terrorist activities. This is the exhaustive and thorough process for Syrian refugees, who are now outright banned from entrance by Trump’s executive order.

There were notable terrorist plots after the 2001 attack: the “shoe bomber,” the Fort Hood shooting and others. However, domestic terrorism is committed in greater numbers by natural-born American citizens and has a greater overall death toll than acts committed by alien extremists excluding September 11.

Between 2001 and 2009, there were 91 incidents of domestic terrorism. A study from “New America” detailing deaths attributed to various brands of extremists, including “right wing,” “left wing” and “jihadist,” from September 11, 2001, forward, jihadists came neck and neck briefly at the outset of the millennium with domestic terrorism, and trailed throughout the following decade. This number spiked in 2016 due to a single incident, the Pulse nightclub massacre in Florida committed by an American-born, radicalized jihadi.

The majority of attacks committed are tied in to White Supremacist, Ethno-Nationalist or religious extremist groups, and generally target individuals or government property with bombings being the favored tactic. While this does not in any way discount real threats posed by unchecked immigration and the poor vetting of refugees, this does bring to light realities regarding violent crime and domestic terrorism.

There is no perfect answer to the real problems facing us in reconciling our security, our individual liberty, and the inalienable rights of all men and women. The simplest answers while satisfying to some, or even a majority, erode and complicate over time. The solutions of yesterday become the crises of today. The Executive Order mentioned at the outset of this piece is one such solution, ignoring the mistakes of our fathers, feeding the emotions of our peers, and nurturing the beasts of our children’s future.

Truth may be a casualty in any time of crisis, but the truth is also dependent upon proper context. Pulled from the rubble and dusted off, context can show us the sobering realities of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, or are led to believe. Context strengthens objective truths, and reveals subjective fabrications. There are no ‘alternative facts’ when bolstered by context.

Eric Reyes