Misframing the Refugee Debate

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born billionaire who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985 so he could buy a TV network, tweeted the following message on Monday evening in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris:

Twitter’s reaction mostly focused on his “proven Christians” phrase. But the tweet itself is an impressive lesson in how to manipulatively frame a political issue—in 140 characters or less.

His first move is to misleadingly establish an imperative for President Obama to act. But what does this “enormous opposition” look like? As of Monday night, it mostly consists of over a dozen GOP governors who generally oppose the president’s policies (and one Democratic governor), a GOP presidential field that frequently condemns him on the campaign trail, and some Republican members of Congress. They’re vocal, yes, but far from enormous—and they’re hardly different from the opposition that Obama regularly faces during his presidency.

That exaggeration isn’t what amazed me about this tweet, though. What jumped out to me was his next key phrase: “special exception.” The Obama administration hopes to bring in 10,000 refugees from Syria over the coming year—a mere fraction of the millions of people pouring out of the war-torn country in recent years, but an increase from recent U.S. totals nonetheless. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee proposed blocking all Syrian refugees. Obama called that idea “a betrayal of our values.”

Murdoch instead proposes a “special exception” for some Syrian Christians, along the lines of Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. Logically speaking, the policy from which they would be seeking an exception would be one that accepted no refugees, since the current policy already allows them entry. This frames the debate as a choice between accepting no Syrian refugees or accepting only “proven Christian” Syrian refugees. It also makes the latter position seem like the humane, moderate one—some refugees are better than no refugees, right?

But since the status quo is to allow refugees into the U.S. regardless of their faith, the choice Murdoch actually proposes is between excluding all Syrian refugees or excluding all Muslim Syrian refugees. Suddenly the humane and moderate option seems like neither. But to his credit, it’s a rhetorically impressive effort to recast his disturbing view of religious freedom into a politically palatable stance on current events.