The Saturday after the Paris attacks I watched football as usual, but also for a little normalcy, a break from apprehension and sorrow. The game I saw was ideal for that purpose: Michigan vs. Indiana, taking me back to my home turf and calling up memories of football Saturdays in Ann Arbor 40 years ago.
Both schools are part of the Big Ten, which is as American as they come, being the oldest Division I athletic conference in the country.* Some people claim its brand of football is stodgy and boring, but this one was, as they say in Middle America, a barn-burner. Michigan won it 48-41 in double overtime, with the quarterback tossing six touchdown passes. One of them went to tight end Jake Butt (yes, the joke potential is limitless), who’s from Pickerington, Ohio.
But four of those TDs were caught by a lightning-fast wideout named Jehu Chesson, who was born in Monrovia, Liberia during the first Liberian civil war. The final, game-winning touchdown was scored by Amara Darboh, born around the same time in Freetown, Sierra Leone amid that country’s civil war. Chesson and his family moved to Ivory Coast before going on to St. Louis. Darboh’s parents were killed, but he escaped on foot with relatives to Gambia, Senegal, and finally, with sponsorship from a Christian group, to Des Moines. He’s now a U.S. citizen.
These young men came from places that many Americans would find obscure, like Raqqa. They fled bloody conflicts that dragged on for years, killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced millions. Would we be safer or stronger if we’d arbitrarily locked them out, as various politicians say we should do with the Syrians?
I know: Liberia and Sierra Leone didn’t breed terrorists who plant bombs in other places. But (1) the ones flooding Europe are trying to get away from the bombers themselves. (2) Refugees don’t just waltz into the USA through customs; the existing screening can take months or years. And (3): They’re less likely to be radicalized here than in some European slum.
I’m not blind to terrorism. I was among those who had to evacuate the U.S. Capitol on 9/11 and I spent the day a few blocks from there, wondering if another plane was coming at us. I’m absolutely not excusing extremism either. But Jeb Bush, who I rarely agree with on anything, committed common sense in talking about Paris and, “the despair and the hatred that has built up over time…where people may have a French passport, may be a French citizen, but they’re not really French.”
Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are sociology majors at one of our great universities. They perform the ritual of running under and touching the Michigan banner at home games, and they play those games under the Stars and Stripes. Even the people in Indiana can be thankful and proud that they’re here. We can all be proud if we reject ignorance, fear, and hatred, and welcome the Syrians to come.
*The Big Ten actually has fourteen teams, having extended its Midwestern roots to Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. It’s also one of the most tradition-bound conferences in the country, but that’s another story.