Editorial: Use facts, not fear, in political debate

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What we heard on stage in Portland last week was pure incongruity.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump warned us that the United States is admitting too many immigrants from “among the most dangerous places in the world.”

This, from a man who hails from a country with one of the higher crimes rates in the world.

And, saying such a thing in a state with the lowest violent crime rate in the United States.

This, folks, is why political rhetoric is so harmful. When a person of Trump’s stature makes such a statement, people believe him regardless of the facts.

In Maine, the reaction was immediately negative because Trump wasn’t generalizing about all immigrants. He made specific mention that Maine had become a “major destination” for Somali refugees. So, obviously, he was working to touch a nerve.

The nerve of it was all his.

The Somali population in Maine is overwhelmingly peaceful. Sure, some immigrants commit crimes large and small, but there are no crime statistics that support any suggestion that immigrants living here are more likely to commit violent crimes than other Mainers, and no statistics to support growth of terrorism in Maine on the level that Trump warned.

He made a solid point that Somalia, from where so many immigrants have fled, is a very dangerous place. In July, 46 people were killed and 34 wounded in eight separate terrorist attacks there, including car bombs and gunfire. During the same month in this country, eight people died and 13 were wounded in three terrorist attacks. Quite a significant difference.

But, back up to June, 23 people died in two terrorist attacks in Somalia while 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in a single terrorist attack on this soil — all in the Orlando nightclub shooting.

That’s a snapshot.

Let’s look at the bigger picture.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime tracks and rates violent crime around the globe, and its statistics for intentional homicide — which includes terror attacks — show the Americas have a much higher murder rate than African nations as a whole (16.3 killed per 100,000 in the Americas versus 12.5 per 100,000 in Africa).

By comparison, the murder rate in European nations is three or four times less than Africa and more than five times less than the Americas.

The murder rate in the Americas is high because of the extreme violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. But the United States is no slouch when it comes to violence. According to the UN, our murder rate in 2013 was 3.9 per 100,000 people; in real numbers that’s 12,253 dead. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the murder rate in this country climbed to 5.1 in 2015, or 16,212 dead.

In 2012, the murder rate in Somalia was 5.6 per 100,000. Since then, as the rate in the United States has risen, the crime index in Somalia has dropped to a number very close to our own.

So, Somalia is dangerous, but compared to other African nations — including South Africa, where 33 people per 100,000 were murdered in 2014 — it falls in the bottom half. Trump did not specifically call out African immigrants from more murderous regions, though — like South Sudan or Cape Verde — because that wouldn’t have made such a sizzling political statement.

The reaction of Maine’s Somali community was fair. These immigrants — many who fled their homeland to avoid danger and chose to raise their families here — fell victims to a stumping Trump who brought more fervor than fact to Portland.

There is clear and vocal support for Trump in Maine and across the country. His positions are shared by millions who really do want to live in a better America, a country that we all want to be great. But, getting there has to be more than theater.

In a world where terrorism is all too real, facts work better than fiction.

This editorial originally appeared in the Lewiston Sun Journal on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016.