The Wretched Plight of the Syrian Refugees

A Syrian refugee reacts as she disembarks from an overcrowded raft at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos on November 20. Balkan countries have begun filtering the flow of migrants to Europe, granting passage to those fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan but turning back others from Africa and Asia, the United Nations and Reuters witnesses said on Thursday. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The attacks by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Paris have escalated an already vicious war of words over the question of what to do about Syrian refugees, and they have exacerbated a drift toward casual anti-Muslim bigotry in both the United States and Europe.

These are not problems on the right or left alone; politicos of all stripes have ridden the wave.

Part of the problem is the ridiculous denial of agency for the terrorists themselves: Yes, they are Muslims. Yes, ISIS (and Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas) are Islamic. And yes, there is a problem within Islam that is being insufficiently addressed by many who have moral authority over the Muslim world (see Al-Azhar) and exacerbated by some who have anointed themselves custodians of Sunni Islam (see Saudi Arabia).

And yes, too, this is not just a Sunni problem. Let us not forget the past and future masters of the art of Islamist terrorism (see Iran) and their enthusiastic fanning of sectarian flames. Because so many who are rightly sympathetic to the plight of Muslim victims of terror (by far the largest group so victimized) are unwilling to speak honestly about Islam itself, their arguments have fallen on deaf ears.

There are right ways and wrong ways to address mass refugee flows. The first is to understand that just because others (Somalis, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc.) exploit the human tide rolling into Europe, it doesn't mean that somehow Syrians should have diminished status. They are running from horrors like what we saw in Paris.

Many ask why they aren't just running to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. The answer is that most are, but in those enormous refugee camps there is also fear, violence and insecurity. It is not insane for people to go elsewhere in search of a better life. This country was founded by such people, and we do not question why they did not simply go to some nearer refuge.

Then there are the loud attacks on Angela Merkel's open-door policy, and the generous aid Germany provides to needy refugees. Has that made Europe a magnet? Perhaps. Indeed, Europe needs an EU-wide policy that doesn't incentivize fraud or mass refugee flows.

There are sensible ways to do this, but the hysteria and bigotry of the hard left and right on the continent have made it much harder. And Europe's post–World War II abnegation of national values, identity and language makes it almost impossible to absorb strangers who can never learn about the values that separate us from secular and Islamist dictators, national and subnational.

There is also a reasonable question to be asked about the how of taking in tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees. It isn't easy to screen this many people, but in order to continue welcoming Syrians, we must indeed screen them. This could happen in the many refugee camps now springing up on the European periphery, and it could happen in places like Guam (where the United States once screened Iraqi refugees).

But for such screening to be effective, the political correctness that has eaten into homeland-security programs must be set aside. Yes, radicalization happens in Muslim communities. Yes, Saudi-funded mosques teach hatred. Yes, young men are far more likely to be terrorists than older men, or women, or children. Those factors need to be considered as refugees are accepted, and some must be excluded.

But most important, remember that the solution to these mass refugee flows is not squelching welfare handouts or stopping boats at sea or building walls and fences. The solution is the restoration of security to the countries that are spewing out this human tide of misery.

That means actually having an aggressive policy in place to defeat ISIS, defeat Al-Qaeda, roll back Iran and replace leaders who have presided over the degradation of the entire Arab and Persian world.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.