Being married has taught me a lot about how to make wiser decisions. Why? Because experience has demonstrated that in order to make a decision now that will be best for both of us in the future, I have to distance myself from short-term emotions. It is from this perspective that I approach and respond to the recent violence that has traumatized our country.
The tragedy in San Bernardino, California, in which a man and woman needlessly took the lives of 14 people and injured 21 others, is being treated by the FBI as a terrorist attack. The two individuals that perpetrated the attack—Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook—gunned down their victims with more than 100 bullets. Mr. Farook, born in America, and Ms. Malik, born in Pakistan, were Muslim. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the violence by making a statement that two of its followers executed the attack. Furthermore, on the day of the attack, Ms. Malik is reported to have made a post on Facebook, where she declared her allegiance to ISIS.
Of course, short-term emotions now run high because of the wanton use of violence and the mindless use of coercive force by two extreme individuals against other members of humanity. The fervor of the moment fuels the chorus for quick and decisive action. Such a reaction is compounded by the availability bias, the psychological principle and mental shortcut where people use information that’s immediately available to make a decision. So whether we’re talking about terrorism, religious extremism, guns, or immigration, the tragedy in San Bernardino is what is most accessible. This act of terror comes to the forefront of our minds first and thus trumps all prior data we have when it comes to making an assessment about a specific issue. Add to this the fact that the human brain devotes more consideration to negative experiences than to positives ones, and what you’re left with is a troubling dynamic where one instance of recent evil can amount to much more than a past filled with ample good.
Just like in marriage, having a big fight stirs up our emotions and compels us to view our partners in a less positive light. We begin to look back and taint the past with pollution of recent heartbreak. We may even disregard what our partners have done throughout our relationships and allow the disheartening present to paint a future based on our angst. In marriage, the obvious danger here is that we throw away the whole person because of one temporal act. In society, the obvious danger is that we throw away an entire group of people who share a common trait because of a few evil individuals. Accordingly, the question we ought always to ask ourselves in life is, Even though this decision feels right right now, will I feel right living with the consequences of the decision weeks, months, or years from now?
In regard to the San Bernardino attack, short-term emotions tell us that we must do something, and do something now. But I dare to ask, Is doing something right now really better than first distancing ourselves from the moment? We may not like the future we create with the choices made in the present.
An example of short-term emotional decision-making comes from a Republican presidential candidate who recently called for a “total and complete shutdown” of entry into the United States for Muslims. The given reason for this restriction is that, according to the candidate, Muslims have a deep-seated disdain for America and therefore pose a legitimate terror threat. The availability bias tells us that “those people” did it, therefore “those people” can’t be let inside our borders. Yet, when we distance ourselves from the moment, it becomes clear that condemning all members of a group because of the sins of two is erroneous and flawed.
According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 41.3 million immigrants were living in the United States as of July 2013. Of those immigrants, 1.8 million came from the Middle East and about 340,000 came from Pakistan. From 2010 to 2013, the number of people immigrating to the United States from the Middle East and Pakistan was about 250,000. From 2010 to 2013, fewer than five Muslims have committed acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. So, even if we boldly assumed that every single immigrant from the Middle East and Pakistan is Muslim (they’re not), the percentage committing acts of terror is less than one-hundredth of 1%. The number of Muslims who committed acts of terror relative to the total number of Muslim adults in America (1.8 million) yields a percentage very close to zero (0.0003%). Both of these figures do not even speak to the fact that most terrorists committing acts of terror on American soil are not Muslim. Now you may say to yourself, “That date range doesn’t even include 9/11!” Yes, you’re right. But according to the FBI, if you look at all the terrorists who attacked on U.S. soil from 1980 until 2005, more than 90% were not Muslims.
Essentially, banning all Muslims from entering the country because of the disgraceful acts of two of them is like banning all women from entering your house because your wife and her female friend made a mess of your man cave and destroyed some of your prized sports memorabilia. (And no, that is not comparing the real-life victims to imagined material losses. The comparison is in the response.) Ultimately, as time moves on and you look back and remember what you felt just in the moment, will you be able to live with the long-term consequences of your decision based on short-term emotions? The thing with history is that you are only doomed to repeat it if you ignore it. Just consider the Chinese who were targeted and banned in the 1800s (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), the Jews who had strict immigration limits placed on them during the first quarter of the 1900s, and the internment of the Japanese in the 1940s. We look back now and say, “That was despicable.” Indeed, this is true. But at the time, it may have felt like the right thing to do in the heat of the moment.
A successful marriage is built upon two people who want to be together. A successful nation is built upon groups of people who want to live among one another and work together. Freedom and liberty are what make America American. Bigotry and xenophobia are what will make us just like the rest. Group condemnation may satisfy the short-term emotions of the moment but will cost us in the long term. To separate ourselves from the fervor of the moment means that we value wisdom and that we treasure the future more than the present.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
A modified version of this article originally appeared in Bold.Global