Fighting Back Against Fear


By Victor Santana

We tend to fear what we don't know. It's part of our nature and our survival. Even if you’re not afraid of it, you are probably still uncomfortable by the unknown.

I've experienced this firsthand as an atheist. I belong to one of the least liked groups in the United States. A Gallup poll conducted in 2012 shows that people would choose an atheist presidential candidate last. Another Gallup poll done in 2015 shows a shift in that decision to choosing a socialist last (the 2012 poll didn't include the socialist option). We're distrusted right behind Muslims which scored 58 and 60 in the respective polls.

Think about that. Americans’ perception of how someone will lead a country changes unfavorably when that someone doesn't meet the characteristics that they are familiar with.  But atheists in America are still relatively safe. In these political times, I worry especially about another group that faces similar hatred and distrust arising from this fear of the unknown: refugees. While I will sleep comfortable in my bed tonight, many refugees are struggling just to stay alive.

I’m appalled to see those in power using human suffering as a tool for their own political gain. Since taking office in January, President Trump and his administration, as well as many partisan news outlets, have used their bully pulpits to spread fear and misinformation about refugees. We must ask ourselves why do we have an administration that is using human suffering as a tool for political empowerment. To create a sense of fear? Do we scare that easily?

Trump’s administration has referred to nonexistent refugee-propagated terror attacks in Sweden, and have hyped up problems in Germany as an example of what happens when you let refugees enter freely. In fact, only 1 percent of crime in Sweden is linked to refugees; and the sensationalist rumors about roving criminal refugees in Germany have been debunked. If you have heard that Sweden is the rape capital of the world due to refugees, then that has also been debunked.

These lies are intentional, to create a sense of fear in Americans. Here’s the truth: The odds of a fatal terror attack on U.S. soil by a refugee is 3.6 billion to 1. Refugees are the most rigorously vetted of any group seeking entry to the United States; the process can take up to two years. When they get here, refugees aren’t terrorists, criminals, or burdens. They enrich and renew America. In many cities that have experienced an influx of refugees, for example, crime goes down.

We also don’t win the battle against radicalization or legitimate terror threats, like ISIS, through bans, or walls, or fear-mongering. What Trump is doing actually helps ISIS recruit more people. It sends the message that America hates Muslims. This is an ideological battle.

As Sam Harris has explained, we need to win a war of ideas and remember that ideologies transcend walls and borders. We need to respect the rights of all Americans regardless of their religion. We need to lift up the voices of moderate Muslims in this society, and to empower reformers in the Muslim world like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We need to live up to the values and ideals that make America a beacon for so many around the world.

People will die because America denies them safe passage out of a misguided fear and hatred. As an atheist, that goes against all of my moral values. As a patriot, someone who loves this country so much that I signed the dotted line to defend it, it insults my understanding of who we are as a nation.

I can’t fathom how it aligns with the Christian American values of so many of my fellow citizens. Can we be compassionate? Can we show the world how an America created by diversity doesn't care about a difference in beliefs? Can we overcome a fear that's unfounded?

Penn Jillette has said, to paraphrase: “The U.S. is a great country but we have to stop acting like cowards.” He has also said, “We have to make sure that when we’re screaming ‘there’s no God!’ that we don’t scream it so loud that we can’t hear someone who is religious crying for help.” I ask the same of my Christian brothers and sisters: When you call out that America is a Christian nation (when it’s not), don’t scream it so loud that you can’t hear someone who is Muslim crying for help.

Remember what it says at the feet of Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The original name for that statue was “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Let’s do just that.

Victor Santana was born and raised in Puerto Rico and joined the U.S. Air Force in 2003 as an intelligence analyst right after receiving his degree in business administration from the University of Puerto Rico. He currently works in cyber security analysis and lives in San Antonio, TX.