Watch your language, Mr. Speaker

Last Thursday, I woke to my radio playing a sound bite from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He was talking about the U.S. government's refugee policies in response to the Syrian crisis and the Paris attacks. 

Advocating a halt on accepting refugees from Syria into the U.S., Ryan said he was looking for a pause in the refugee program. In his words, he wanted to stop the refugee program, "...until we can be certain beyond any doubt that those coming here are not a threat. It's that simple, and I don't think it's asking too much."

Well, actually, yes, it is asking too much.

I would like to be certain beyond any doubt that I won't be hit by a drunk driver next week. I would like to be certain beyond any doubt that no American with a gun will walk into a U.S. elementary school and start shooting children next month. I would like to be certain beyond any doubt that politicians would speak the truth all of the time. 

To be fair, earlier in Ryan's same floor speech to house members, he said: "People understand the plight of those fleeing the Middle East. But they also want basic assurances for the safety of this country." Those words sound reasonable, wise and measured. But they were a decoy. Experts agree that stringent requirements are already in place for refugees coming to the U.S.

Ryan stepped up his rhetoric with his "beyond any doubt" language. He implied that there are significant issues with our current refugee program and that, as a result, all Americans are at risk—unless we can offer 100-percent guarantees that no refugees coming to the U.S. will pose a threat to our citizens. With those words, he strayed into the polarizing language of absolutes. We can never ensure that all Americans can be protected from acts of terror, as much as we'd like to.

In moments like these, I am reminded of the power of language. A policy is nothing but words after all, and political language matters as much as policy content.  In a nation grappling with fissures in its politics, economic structure, and social fabric, we need elected leaders who speak frankly about complex issues while avoiding false premises or unrealistic promises that play off peoples' fears. 

Our national discussion on refugee policies is far too important to be cloaked in faulty phrases that stoke fears. It demands precise language, persuasive arguments and realistic solutions that are aligned with our nation's values. Careful language is essential.

Is that too much to ask?