On St. Patrick’s Day, thinking of Irish-Syrians and Catholic-Muslims

Last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Raleigh
Last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Raleigh newsobserver.com

A few weeks ago, Gov. Pat McCrory proclaimed March to be Irish-American heritage month. If he really wanted to celebrate the heritage of the 40 million Americans of Irish descent on St. Patrick’s Day, he should drop his objections to resettling Syrian refugees in North Carolina.

The vast majority of Irish-Americans descend from immigrants who were also fleeing near certain death. Starvation and its related diseases killed a third of the Irish population during the mid-19th century years when most Irish came to America. If you are descended from them, you probably would not exist if they had been turned away from this country.

Fear of Muslims generally and Syrian refugees in particular is obviously at a fever pitch. Donald Trump famously called for barring all Muslims from entering the United States. Ben Carson compared some Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. This sort of talk would sound familiar to our Irish ancestors. Many 19th century Americans considered the Irish to be violent, criminal and a threat to national security. Some openly suggested that they were subhuman. Political cartoons often depicted them as gorillas. As Roman Catholics, the Irish were suspected of owing ultimate allegiance to the pope and to be engaged in a secret conspiracy to subvert the American way of life.

My father used to jokingly tell me that everyone was a little bit Irish but that only God was a hundred percent Irish. Well, if you want to really get in touch with your Irish heritage, you should write McCrory and tell him that you are a little bit Syrian and a little bit Muslim and that you demand that North Carolina take its fair share of Syrian refugees.

But what about 9/11 and the Paris attacks? Why admit thousands of refugees when it can take so few to kill so many? None of the 9/11 hijackers came into this country as refugees, and most of the Paris attackers were European residents.

The first responders

Still, it is possible – although not very likely – that we could admit a Syrian refugee who might participate in a terror attack. Does that possibility justify sending the innocent others back to deaths at least as certain as the ones that your ancestors fled when they left Ireland?

I happened to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York the day before the Paris attacks last fall. I couldn’t help but notice how many of the police officers and firefighters who died had Irish surnames. Some of these dead must have been the descendants of Irish refugees from starvation. Would they want us to shut the door to the Syrian refugees who now stand in the shoes of their own ancestors?

The dead can’t speak, so we must make our own meaning of their deaths. The first responders we lost on 9/11 would want us to be safe, for sure. But they gave their own lives rushing into burning buildings to save others. People who risk their lives for others see a higher purpose to life. When they trudged up those stairs to their deaths, they showed us in the most powerful way possible that there is more to life than just being safe and that there is more to us as a people than simply being safer and richer and more powerful than anyone else.

I like to think that these fallen 9/11 first responders would tell us that we should protect ourselves against another 9/11, but that we should not lose our souls in the process. Openness and hopefulness form big parts of that American soul. Hunger and oppression drove many people to our country, including the Irish, but that hopeful, inclusive spirit made them Americans in their own eyes and eventually in the eyes of those already here. That American soul is the one thing that terrorists cannot destroy but that we can ourselves lose if we let our worst fears rule our hearts.

So write to the governor this St. Patrick’s Day, and you will have connected in the most meaningful way possible with those first Irish-Americans who brought your family line to these shores. You will have proven to yourself that you, like those fallen first responders, believe that life has a higher purpose and that a soulless existence is not worth the illusory pursuit of absolute safety.

Joseph E. Kennedy, professor of law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, is the proud son of Irish immigrants.