I deeply love America. I firmly believe that America’s governmental, economic, and cultural models are inherently superior to others, and that’s why America has proven one of the world’s greatest success stories for so long. All that being said, America’s response to the increasingly serious Syrian and Iraqi refugee situation is beyond shameful.
The United States cannot take in everyone from around the world whose situation is worse than ours. Our entire country would crumble in weeks, and everyone would be worse off. On a more philosophical level, the US and its citizens don’t inherently owe others anything. This situation is different. The US does owe Syrians and Iraqi refugees, because the US is the reason that they are refugees.
It is indisputable that the rise of Daesh is the direct result of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The justification and legality of that war is irrelevant here. If the US hadn’t invaded Iraq, Daesh would never have existed. It is arguable whether or not a similar militant movement would have developed in response to his tyranny, as a myriad of non-Daesh affiliated movements have risen in Syria, but that is irrelevant also, because that’s not what happened. It is possible that these movements may have crossed the Syrian border from Iraq, but that’s irrelevant, because those hypothetical groups never existed.
You can argue all you want about probabilities and possibilities, about should haves and could haves until you’re blue in the face. Those are all intellectual flights of fancy. The historical record is not what could have, should have, or would have happened, but rather what DID happen. The historical record that the US invaded Iraq. The US invasion caused the rise of Daesh. Daesh moved from Iraq to Syria. Incalculable suffering has been the result. Have other groups, many of whom are actively engaged in brutal combat with Daesh, been just as complicit in Syria’s current situation? Absolutely. However, the counterpoint is also true. No one has been more complicit in Syria’s situation as Daesh. The deliberate actions of the US have caused the current crisis in Iraq and have dramatically exacerbated (at best) the situation in Syria. The US is the reason that millions of innocent souls are struggling to keep themselves and their children alive. We owe them.
Any argument about the US spending resources is ridiculous. Lebanon, a country of somewhere around 4 million people with a considerably lower standard of living than the United States, has taken in over 1 million Syrian refugees, 1 refugee for every 4 citizens. Jordan, a country of 8 million has taken in 800,000, 1 refugee for every 10 citizens. The wealthiest country in the world is going through an obscenely ugly and bigoted fight to take in tens of thousands. That’s shameful. If the US took in 35,000,000 Syrian refugees (roughly double that country’s entire population), we would not be taking in as many per capita as Jordan. If the US took in 100,000,000 Syrian refugees, we would still not be taking in as many refugees per capita as Lebanon. The US should be a beacon of humanitarian aid, generosity, and charity that inspires the world to help others when need is greatest. Instead, we are being shown up to an unbelievable shameful degree by much smaller and much poorer nations who are giving so much more when they have so much less to give. We are being greedy and callous. The US can easily support much, much greater numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees with much less strain. As a proud American, I find it entirely unacceptable that the image of my country is so stained, that we allow our global image to be so tarnished. If you believe that America is truly the greatest country on Earth, as I do, you should find it unacceptable that any country would be so much greater than the US, especially when that metric is compassion.
The fear of “terrorism” seems to be at the center of anti-refugee sentiment. The argument is that if we let in Syrian refugees, a high percentage of them will be terrorists that will kill and maim in the US. This belief is entirely and objectively false. The VAST, VAST majority of Syrians are not terrorists, and it is absolutely insane that I, or anyone else, would have to seriously write that because others seriously believe that. How, in 2016, can anyone in the US believe that a high percentage of the Syrian population is made up of terrorists? How is it possible that such ignorance can still exist in America? Ignoring that the majority of the Syrian population are good people (as the majority of all countries are) who want nothing to do with the violence and bloodshed they see on a daily basis, these refugees are fleeing terrorism. If they were terrorists and/or terrorist sympathizers they would be staying with the terrorists and living under their brutal rule. They would not be risking their lives and the lives of their children to flee terrorists. The equivalent argument would be saying that the US should not have let German Jews into the US during the years leading up to World War II because of the risk of letting Nazi saboteurs in. They may come from the same country, but they are emphatically not the same people with the same values.
Are most active Radical Islamic terrorists Sunni Muslims? Yes. Are the majority of Syrian and Iraqi refugees Sunni Muslim? Yes. However, there are MILLIONS of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are not Sunni Muslim, including hundreds of thousands of Christians, the same faith that the vast majority of Americans ascribe to. Is a Syrian Christian or an Iraqi Yazidi likely to be a terrorist? Only the most ignorant and bigoted would even seriously consider the question. Beyond that, the VAST, VAST, VAST majority of Sunni Muslims around the world are NOT terrorists. There are over a billion Sunni Muslims. The number of active Radical Islamic terrorists is a miniscule, miniscule fraction of that. Being concerned about Sunni Muslims being Radical Islamic terrorists is the same as being concerned that Caucasian Americans are White Supremacy or Anti-Women terrorists, who by the way have committed many times the number of terrorist attacks in the US over the last 20 years than any other group combined. Should we no longer allow Europeans to enter the US because they may be White Supremacist terrorists?
There are those who argue that letting even one terrorist is too high of a price to pay, that the risk to American life is too great. I would counter that argument that the cost in human life more than outweighs the risk to American life. Hundreds of thousands of children are in danger of death and horrific abuse. Let me repeat that. Hundreds of thousands of CHILDREN are in danger of death and horrific abuse. Syrian and Iraqi refugees aren’t gun-wielding psychopaths. They are children and the elderly, parents and adult children trying desperately to save their families. However, let’s assume that these fears are correct and terrorists would creep in and threaten the US. I would ask you this. If you saw a three-year old in the middle of the street with a car barreling down, would you not jump in front of the car, grab the child, and push him out of the way, even knowing you might die yourself? This is no different, only the likelihood of injury to you is a tiny, tiny fraction as great. The car that you know for a fact is right there will probably hit you. The terrorist that probably doesn’t exist will almost certainly not kill you. Not convinced? Let me change the scenario. Let’s say you threw a child into a river, and they get caught in a whirlpool. Would you not owe it to them to jump in and risk getting sucked in to save them? Would you not be morally deficient if you didn’t? That is the real situation here. America screwed up their country, and they are now at risk of death as a result. Every day in the United States, thousands of people put themselves at risk of serious harm or death to help children, from police officers, to social workers on home visits, to domestic violence shelter volunteers. They do it because the lives of children are worth protecting, even at the risk of your own life.
Say the US was to let in 100,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, thereby saving 100,000 lives. Let’s say 5 of those refugees were terrorists in disguise, and they carried out the most successful terrorist attack since 9/11, killing 1,000 people. If this incredibly unlikely scenario happens, that’s a tradeoff of 1,000 lives for 100,000. My single life isn’t worth more than 100 Syrian and Iraqi lives, and neither is yours. You would have to be unbelievably callous to believe otherwise. Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t doing the safe thing, but doing the right thing is always the most important thing.
Right now, there is this pervasive belief that for some reason Muslim immigrants will not accept American values or the American way of life. It is assumed that they will always put their religion and their culture over their country. The same arguments have been made countless times in American history, and they have always been proven false. Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics have not put the judgment of the Pope over American laws. Jews of all nationalities and ethnicities have become an integral part of American life and culture. Second generation Latino immigrants speak English just as well as any other native-born American, and many do not even understand Spanish. I have eaten hamburgers with more than a couple of Hindus. There are already millions of Muslims in the United States who are loyal and dedicated Americans, serving in the military, saving lives in hospitals, and volunteering for charities. If you truly believe that American values and the American way of life are superior (as I do) then you cannot also believe that people will not adapt to them. Every single immigrant community has been absorbed into American society, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be any different.
On a more personal level as an American, the insane level of hypocrisy around this issue is maddening. Americans love to tell anyone and everyone about how great America is. I wholeheartedly agree, and I will do the same. I’m an ardent believer in American Exceptionalism. I believe that democracy, secularism, equality, and holding all equal before the law are values that will benefit all of mankind. I believe in religious freedom, that all human lives are of inherently equal value. I believe that everyone, regardless of faith, gender, orientation, economic status, ethnicity, appearance, or disability should have equal rights, equal treatment, and equal opportunity. America has criticized the human rights record of dozens of countries, and done so loudly. We have fought wars to prevent genocide. We proclaim our pride that we are a nation of immigrants, that we are a melting pot. We pontificate on how everyone needs to own up to his or her mistakes and deal with the consequences of their actions.
The anti-refugee sentiment paints the opposite picture of America. It paints us as a nation of cold, heartless, xenophobic, bigoted, fundamentalists who could not care less about those who are superficially different than us. It paints the picture that religious freedom only applies to Christians, so no others need apply. It paints the picture that we believe that our lives are inherently more valuable than their lives. It shows that we are no better than anyone else when it comes to human rights, that we also pick and choose who deserves fair treatment based on one’s creed and ethnicity. It shows that we are only believe that others should deal with the consequences of their actions, not that we should have to deal with the consequences of our own. It’s hypocritical. It’s sad. It’s pitiful. The worst part is that we’re better than this. We know we’re better than this, and yet we still let it go on anyway.
I know that Americans are some of the most compassionate, generous, and understanding people in the world. Americans lead the world in charitable donations. Our spending on peacekeeping, international aid, and contributions to multi-national organizations is many times that of other countries. Thousands of Americans serve the world in the Peace Corps, Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, dozens of Missionary organizations, and countless other groups. America has welcomed millions upon millions of refugees over the centuries. The Pilgrims were originally refugees fleeing persecution. Americans value human life and in their hearts know that a person’s religion, the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their family history, and any disabilities they may have doesn’t matter.
I know that this isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about Syrian and Iraqi refugees. If you believe that Muslims are inherently dangerous, mere words aren’t going to make you think otherwise. Here’s what I would ask. If you think that Syrians and Iraqis are dangerous terrorists, think to yourself, “Have I ever met a Syrian of any religion? Have I ever had a conversation with an Iraqi?” For that matter, “Have I ever taken the time to get to know a Muslim of any nationality?” All that I ask is before you have decided that these suffering families desperately trying to ensure that their children survive are all dangerous terrorists is that you meet a Syrian and talk to them. There are dozens of refugee advocacy groups out there, and many more Muslim organizations, that would be happy to arrange an introduction. Judge for yourself what this person is or is not. While it isn’t fair to judge any group of people based on one member, even that is far more fair than to judge that group having NEVER met any member. How the hell can you judge anyone that you don’t know? Ask them if they still have family in the Middle East. Ask them what their family is going through. Preferably, talk to a refugee. Ask them about their experiences. Ask them about the horrors they’ve seen and those that are still befalling their countrymen.
I challenge you to listen with open ears as you hear about starvation, murder, sexual assault, and other acts of unspeakable cruelty they have seen and experienced, and still feel like we should callously abandon these human beings to their suffering, to say, “It’s not our problem or our responsibility.” I challenge you to hear about the unbelievable risks that they took to escape, all of the hardships they endured to end their family’s suffering, the power of their will and the depth of their devotion and kindness and tell me that they are a danger. I challenge you to really consider the chain of events that began with the American invasion of Iraq and led to the current crisis and believe that we as a country, a society, and individuals don’t all share the blame. I challenge you to look into your heart and have it tell you whether or not we should bar our doors to refugees, knowing what their situation is and what we have done to cause it. I challenge you to think about what America claims to be, what you want America to be, and how we are not living up to that dream. More importantly, I challenge you to talk about things that have nothing to do with Syria or the current situation there. I challenge you to talk about your families here, your jobs, restaurants, television shows, exactly what you would talk to anyone else about. I challenge you to still believe that you and they are fundamentally different, that they and the people like them are somehow more vicious or cruel than you, after relating to them on a human level.
Bigotry is easy. Fear is easy. Ignorance is easy. Believing what some talking head on the “news” that’s inflaming public paranoia for ratings or a politician trying to rally votes quickly is easy. Ignoring a problem because, “it’s not your problem,” is easy. Ignoring your own responsibility and that of your country is easy. Putting your own (conceived notion of) safety over the lives of others is easy. Taking time to find out the truth is hard. Ignoring what you hear and finding out for yourself is hard. Taking a good long hard look at a situation and admitting that you (or your country) is responsible for the suffering of others and acknowledging that you owe it to them to alleviate their suffering is hard. Putting yourself at risk, no matter how small, to protect the lives of others is hard. Doing the right thing is hard.
None of that matters, because Americans want to do the right thing. Once we’re fully educated and get past the bullshit that they feed us, we know what the right thing is. It may take us decades, or even centuries, but we eventually do the right thing, whatever the cost. We do the right thing because we have freedom of choice, and Americans consistently choose to do the right thing. We know that our actions can and will make the world a better place, and we believe that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Bringing in refugees is the right thing to do. In our hearts, we know that it is. America is the greatest country on Earth. It’s time that we live up to our obligations and prove it.