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Republicans race to the bottom to scapegoat Muslims

House Speaker Paul Ryan supports a bill to keep Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the US.
House Speaker Paul Ryan supports a bill to keep Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the US.European Pressphoto Agency

In the week since terrorists unleashed a bloody wave of attacks in Paris, the United States has taken a dark turn.

What started off as a politically expedient and xenophobic effort, based on phantom security concerns, to politicize the resettlement of Syrian refugees has evolved into a full-scale rhetorical assault by the Republican Party not only on Muslim-Americans but also the progressive values that would move America closer to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Sensing a political opportunity, 25 Republican governors have now publicly vowed to prevent Syrian refugees from entering their states. On Thursday, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that would toughen the already extremely tough screening process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Other legislators have talked about keeping out all refugees.

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This response to the Paris atrocity has been rejected in France, the country that actually had 130 of its citizens killed last week and hundreds more wounded. President Francois Hollande has already reiterated his support to bring 30,000 more Syrian refugees into his country over the next two years.

But as bad as things have gotten on the refugee front, the Republican Party is continuing this race to the bottom.

In Tennessee, the chairman of the state legislature's Republican caucus called on the National Guard to be mobilized in order to round up any Syrian refugees who've settled there. In Missouri, a Republican state representative is calling for a special legislative session to block refugee resettlement and stop "the potential Islamization" of the state. In Louisiana, Senator David Vitter, who is trailing badly in the race for governor, accused President Obama of "sending refugees to Louisiana" and his opponent John Bel Edwards of lending a helping hand to the effort (in all, 14 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the state).

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Among the GOP's presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee talks about turning back any refugees from countries with a "strong presence of ISIS or Al Qaeda." Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz think Christian refugees from Syria are fine, but Muslims are too big a risk. Trump said, "We're going to have to do things that we never did before,'' which could include having a "look at the mosques" here in the United States. Trump refused to rule out the possibility of requiring American Muslims to carry special forms of identification, and Thursday night he said he'd "absolutely" implement a plan to register them in a database.

This is the Republican front-runner, which is perhaps less surprising when one considers that among Republican votes, around 75 percent believe that the values of Islam are "at odds" with America's values.

These ideas are being floated after an attack by jihadists in another country. Imagine what Republicans would be saying if an attack happened here.

It's enough to make one wistful for the presidency of George W. Bush. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he implored his fellow Americans not to take out their anger on American Muslims. In today's Republican Party, there appear to be no adults left. It seems no one in a position of responsibility within the party can resist the urge to scapegoat Muslims and play on the legitimate fears of the American people about terrorism.

All of this puts an enormous burden on Democrats and liberals to push back on these noxious arguments. Because regrettably, the politics of this favor Republicans.

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While there have been notable exceptions, like Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and the unfortunate mayor of Roanoke, Va., who used the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a positive rationale for blocking refugee resettlement, and those 47 Democrats in the House who went along with the GOP's anti-refugee legislation, most Democrats have not buckled. Even future Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who initially talked about a refugee pause after Paris, has backed away from that position.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said in a speech Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations, "We cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations. Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee — that is just not who we are. We are better than that."

To be sure, the questions raised by Americans about the level of scrutiny applied to Syrian refugees should not be dismissed. These are legitimate issues — and the fact that there is intense vetting of all refugees to the United States should alleviate these concerns.

But make no mistake: There is a larger fight here. It's about something bigger than playing defense against Republican xenophobia, and it's about something more important than political advantage.

If all our platitudinous talk about American exceptionalism and American values like tolerance and diversity and being a shining city on a hill are to mean anything, moments like these are where the rubber meets the road. The argument that we should accept Syrian refugees is not about US national security, and, ironically, it's not even about ISIS. It's a lot simpler than that. It's who we are as nation and what we aspire to be. It's about refusing to fall victim to fear and ignorance, but also proudly and unabashedly portraying the acceptance of Syrian refugees to our shores in positive terms — as the manifestation of our basic humanity.

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Quite simply, opening the doors of the United States to those seeking shelter from the tyrant in Damascus and the savages in Raqqa is the right thing to do. Period. We should be both unafraid to do it and unafraid to say it.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.