With the ever looming threat of terrorism at home, the rise of ISIS, and now the devastating attacks on Paris, it is easy to understand why many Americans would second guess our decision to take in Syrian refugees. All across the world citizens from various nations are doing their best to balance a sense of moral justice with their needs for defending their loved ones. It is no easy thing to help another human being when it exposes us to catastrophic danger, and for this reason many believe we should close our doors and err in the side of caution. I would urge those who are struggling to find a position on this issue to examine the evidence and our history in order to answer some fundamental questions.
1) What is the connection to Paris?
It is completely reasonable and logical for each and every one of us to have assumed a possible connection between the atrocities in Paris and the rather recent influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, but an assumption is not fact. As the smoke begins to clear it has been established that every known attacker was a European national, not a Syrian refugee.
And this is precisely why drawing a false connection between Paris and these refugees has two-fold negative consequences. The first and most obvious result would be the unjust tainting of the non-radical civilian families, women and children, with the atrocities of an attack that they neither caused, aided, or desired in any way. But there is a much more subtle and negative consequence of this false connection, an it would affect Americans and Europeans alike. By focusing our efforts and discourse on the Syrian refugees, we ignore the much more real and ominous threat. Each and everyone of these attackers was a European national… they did’t need to sneak into Europe, they were part of it. ISIS managed to strike deep into the heart of our civilization not by sneaking into a raft full of terrified Syrian families, but by infiltrating and radicalizing the minds and hearts of its very citizens. They were able to convince enough young men that the ‘injustices’ of the western world were so great, that their Jihad in the name of Islam is so just, that they were willing to sacrifice their own lives to cause fear and harm upon our people. Blocking Syrian refugees from reaching safety within our borders in order to protect against terrorism is nothing but a form of security theater, one which trades the lives and well being of human beings whose lives have been destroyed in exchange for a small sense of comfort for ourselves.
2) What is our burden of responsibility?
This is a more uncomfortable question for most Americans, but one which needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, the vast majority of US citizens are completely unaware of the link between American foreign policy and the current situation in Syria. Without going too far back lets focus exclusively on the rise of ISIS. In 2003, George Bush led the United States into war against Iraq on what we now know were false pretenses and ‘faulty’ intelligence. If you ever hear politicians talk about the Iraq war as a mistake, understand that they are not saying so simply because of the results, but because we now know that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld deliberately lied in order to get us there (I won’t get here into the reasons for these lies but suffice it to say these individuals made tremendous amounts of money from their equity stakes in various defense contracts).
To make matters worse, however, the United States government completely failed to plan for the transition that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Contrary to our established military strategy, George W Bush opted to abruptly disband the Iraqi army. This created trouble for two principal reasons, and its not hard to see how it resulted in disastrous consequences. On the one hand we left a massive territory in the middle east without a strong national army, creating a power vacuum which permitted unprecedented flexibility for would be Jihadist. On the other hand we left thousands of young Iraqi men, individuals with military training who had known nothing but fighting their whole lives, without a job, without skills, and often with a sense of anger and revenge towards the western world. All this in a population that was already struggling well before being hit with the burdens of war. Today over 100 former Saddam Hussein-era officers run ISIS’ military and intelligence operations in Iraq and Syria.
That group is now terrorizing the population at large, inflicting enormous amounts of pain and suffering on a population which had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11, nothing to do with the attacks on Paris, and nothing to do with the United States’ illegal invasion of Iraq. Now I understand that this does not necessarily mean we have to take full responsibility for the well-being of the Syrian people, but we must at least be mindful that this is not some obscure problem we had nothing to do with, but rather the direct result of our government’s actions. It is not too much to ask of our citizens then, to simply support the resolution that we must help these poor families who in their despair have fled with little more than the clothes on their back. Those among you of religious conviction should question what your sacred texts would say about this topic.
3) Is 10,000 too big a number?
The United States grants citizenship to over 650,000 people each year which breaks down to well over 50,000 each month. Adding 10,000 refugees to a population of over 300 million is equivalent to making room for one more person in a stadium with 40,000 people. No, its not too many.
4) Have we learned from history?
It is an old and well worn quote which teaches us that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” As I assume was the case for most people reading this article, I spent a considerable amount of time in school learning about the atrocities committed by Hitler during the holocaust. And perhaps like I did at one time, many of you asked one of your teachers or professors why it was that we spent so much time learning about that one event. Why did we have to read about Anne Frank and what happened to her family specifically, about the concentration camps, and why o why are there so many museums and movies dedicated to this depressing event. I would overtime learn that the answer to my question was simple yet profound. It is because we stood by and did nothing for too long, either from fear, pragmatism, or indifference many countries chose to take no action for far too long, and we must never ever forget the consequences of those choices.
And of course it is easy to look back at the problems of the past and take the moral high road. It is easy to look at the choices facing previous generations and without facing the risks they faced, without having to make the sacrifices they would have made, it is easy to conclude we would have made the right choice. It is much harder, and it requires much more courage, to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges facing our own generation, when the sacrifices and the risks must be taken by ourselves. It is usually an exaggeration in modern times to compare a group to the Nazis, but the atrocities committed by ISIS throughout this reign of terror present a humanitarian crisis on a similar scale. We know today that Anne Frank’s father desperately tried to secure political asylum in the United States but was ultimately denied.
Are we willing to learn the lessons of our past or will we be forever doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over as a population suffering from collective amnesia. Will children of the future read the diaries of a poor Syrian girl whose family was mercilessly terrorized and murdered by extremists, or will they read instead the memoirs of grateful and proud Syrian-Americans who owed their life to a country which has always prided itself in its embrace of those in need. Let me distort the words of John F. Kennedy just a little to drive the point home, we choose to be the refuge of the world, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Let’s be the country we believe we are.