“How do we know they are not terrorists?” the woman at the gym asked. We were discussing an acquaintance wanting to open her basement suite to a family of Syrian refugees. “We know they are not,” I answered as a man sitting nearby shook his head. “They are not terrorists; they are running away from terror,” I clarified. “People are not terrorists.”
I wonder how she feels today. I wonder if, come Monday when I meet her again, she will walk up to me and say “See? We can’t know if they are terrorists. Look what happened in Paris!” Or she might sit there making small talk while thinking the same thoughts: “We can’t trust them. They might be terrorists.”
Here’s the thing: We can’t know whether someone who comes to our country is a terrorist or not, just like we can’t know if our neighbor who has lived in the same house all their life, is a terrorist. It is quite possible that among the millions of men, women, and children fleeing from war, terror, and oppression in Syria and Iraq, there are terrorists. It is equally possible that among those same desperate people, we will find the person who cures breast cancer, invents the next iPhone, or finds a solution to the pervasive conflicts in the Middle East. And while it is possible that among these millions of refugees, there may be a few with bad intentions, we cannot turn them all away. Modern society is built on tolerance. It is what we teach our children. We don’t judge an entire group based on the actions of a few individuals.
How do we know they are not terrorists, whomever “they” are in our minds? We take it on statistics and on faith in human decency. For every terrorist, there are millions of people who abhor terror and want nothing more than for terror to disappear from their lives. And every person we welcome into our lives and treat like a human being is a person that will stand up to terror and let compassion and love for all humans lead the way.
To the woman at the gym I want to say this: “Rather than ask yourself how you know they are not terrorists, ask yourself how you know they are not the people who will stop the terrorists.”
Photo: Heart shaped lock on Pont des Arts in Paris by the author. Original on Flickr.