Exceptionally Easy to Scare

We often hear public officials, and candidates, speak of American “exceptionalism”.  I’ve always felt that it’s exceptionally arrogant to constantly declare superiority.  The people we admire don’t do that.  More to the point, if we are going to talk the talk of exceptionalism, we need to walk the walk when it comes to conduct.  And making fear-based decisions is not exceptional.  In fact, it is below average.

In the wake of the shootings in Paris last week, 20 plus governors have declared that their states will not accept Syrian refugees.  These declarations are uniquely inferior for two reasons: 1) governors have no legal authority whatsoever to actually implement any such policy; and 2) it’s just so damned cowardly.

Regarding governors’ authority to simply deny entry into their states, the power to pass laws pertaining to immigration belongs exclusively to the Federal Government.  There is no state authority to deny entry into a state on the basis of that state’s immigration preferences.  If the Federal Government allows a person into the United States, then that person can live anywhere in the United States.  To really grasp the ludicrous nature of these governor’s promises, consider what implementation of their plans would actually look like.  Are these governors intending to set up check points on every road entering their state?   Will officers conduct house-to-house searches in order to implement their own rules?  Any governor who issues a public declaration that his or her state will not allow Syrian refugees to enter knows that the statement is false in the sense that it is completely illegal.  

For its part, the media gauges public “support” for the position taken by these governors.  In so doing, the media avoids the fundamental issue of whether these governors are vowing to exclude people they don’t want, via orders they cannot give, and legitimizes a promise that cannot and will not be fulfilled.     

The United States House of Representatives rock-ribbed response to the attacks was to approve a bill to “pause” immigration of Syrian refugees.  With remarkable dispatch, the House of Representatives was able to pass a major bill, and do so with virtually no debate.

The issue we must confront is whether the United States should continue to be a nation that habitually panics.  Our public officials can be relied upon to make statements and propose measures that cast us as a nation in a perpetual grip of fear.  There is nothing exceptional about that.  Most alarmingly, the public seems willing to abdicate its own role in this farce.  

Before we implement another round of wholesale laws that affect the lives of every American (see The Patriot Act), we should have a serious, factual debate about the realities of any alleged threat we are now facing, and the realities of the aftermath of reflexively passing laws.  The speed with which the Patriot Act was passed was exceeded only by the intensity of efforts to repeal it in the years thereafter when the public had an opportunity to calm down and experience the actual consequences of a law motivated by fear.

Since 2001, we have, as a nation, suffered the consequences of critical decisions that were made with little or no debate.  From the Patriot Act, to invading Afghanistan and Iraq, all of the negative consequences of these decisions became evident over time.  None of them were debated beforehand.  Now is the time for serious people to argue serious alternatives, in public, so that we the people can make important decisions in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the issues.

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Rob Kilmer, the President of You Defend It, Inc. is a lawyer with a litigation practice in upstate New York.  He hosted the “You Defend It with Rob Kilmer” radio show until 2009 and since then has produced You Defend It debates..  He worked as a guest commentator for CBS4 in Miami during the 2012 Presidential debates, and Pulitzer Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote a piece on him called: “A Solution for Loud, Empty Talk”.

Mr. Kilmer’s initiative focuses on current, divisive issues, and provides members of the public with an opportunity to witness a dignified debate, the purpose of which is to identify how people’s lives will actually be affected by the outcome of the issue being debate.  Towards that end, You Defend It debates are governed by two, simple rules: 1) each debater must directly answer the question asked; and 2) each must do so without a single reference to his or her opponent’s argument, party or (presumed) political philosophy.  In other words, each debater is expected to show up at the debate with his or her own solution – and defend it.


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“If you say it, prove it – because we live with the consequences.”

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