A nifty example of the point I made yesterday about Americans being stuck between two unreliable narrators and forced to grope their way to the truth somewhere in between. On the one hand, Conway’s wrong on the facts here — not once but twice. There was never any terror attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky; what she’s thinking of (and later acknowledged, in admitting her error) was the arrest in 2011 of two Iraqi refugees who’d been resettled in the city for trying to send money and weapons back home to Al Qaeda to target American soldiers. One Iraqi got 40 years in prison for that, the other got life. The fingerprint of one of them was matched to a fingerprint on an IED recovered in Iraq towards the beginning of the war. Obama reacted to the arrests by order the revetting of 58,000 Iraqi refugees who’d already been admitted to the U.S., which caused a major slowdown in processing new refugees — not a ban, as Conway also erroneously suggests. Unreliable. And when you’re a top White House advisor and the single most ubiquitous surrogate for the president on American TV, unreliability about a terror attack is a very bad trait to display, whether the mistake is innocent or not. Especially when you spend most of your time wagging your finger at the media for their own untrustworthiness.
But the heavy media coverage of her mistake today, in treating this as a “can you believe it?” mega-gaffe and an example of the “alternative facts” that Conway infamously touted a few weeks ago, is also being unreliable in glossing over her underlying point. She’s defending Trump’s temporary refugee ban by noting that dangerous people have been admitted to the United States before — which is true, and the two Bowling Green scumbags are paradigm examples. There was no “massacre” and she deserves to be called on that, but if you worry about letting people in from Iraq and Syria because you’re afraid they might have an interest in bombs and jihad, well, the Bowling Green incident gives you reason to worry. She misremembered it as a successful attack, but the intent to kill American soldiers was there — enough so to secure federal convictions. ABC News went so far at the time of the arrests as to suggest that the U.S. might have inadvertently let “dozens” of terrorists into the country via insufficiently rigorous vetting procedures for refugees. A fair fact-check of Conway would note all of that, but most of the commentary today involves people posting things like “In Memoriam, Bowling Green Massacre victims” beneath a picture of a blank box. WaPo’s video clip below even resorts to a little “buzzer” to taunt Conway over her error. You can excuse their antagonism if you like by saying that they’re only giving back to Trump the sort of half-truths and sneering disdain that he and Conway heap on them daily, but nothing good will come to the media from trying to fight Trumpian fire with fire. In fact, if you were a cynic, you might speculate that the reason so much scorn is being poured on Conway this morning is because she has a point that there’s precedent for refugees posing a danger to Americans. The logic of the criticism seems to boil down to: If the “Bowling Green massacre” didn’t happen, well, who cares if the Bowling Green terror arrests did?
If the press wanted to fact-check Conway effectively on this, they’d skip the buzzers and do what Elizabeth Nolan Brown did, asking the question of just how many refugees have gone bad like the pair in Bowling Green. The answer, according to a 2015 study: Three — out of 784,000. Two were the Bowling Green guys and the third came to America with his parents as a Christian refugee. (The Tsarnaevs weren’t refugees, they were the sons of asylum-seekers, which meant their parents got to stay in the U.S. while they were being vetted instead of being vetted before entry.) There may be a few others who came to the U.S. as refugees as kids and ended up being radicalized here, but the point is that it’s vanishingly rare for refugees to enter the U.S. with bad intentions. Whether you think an indefinite ban on Syrians is worth it anyway from a pure “better safe than sorry” standpoint is up to you, but as I say, this is the point on which a smart critic of the administration would dwell. Not the dumb mistake about a “massacre” (although of course that should be corrected) but why the Bowling Green incident is in itself supposedly good cause to bar thousands of people at serious risk of being caught between the gears of Assad and ISIS in Syria.