An Open Address to My Fellow Americans,
To most of you, I am a stranger. For most of you I will so remain, an insignificant and indistinguishable voice in a chorus that seems to share no key or common score. I am under no illusions that you will be moved by my remarks, or that you will even reach the end of them— abandoning in disagreement or indifference the effort to hear out your countryman. I do not fault you for this, but I would fault myself for not having attempted to capture your attention at all.
Because strangers though we are, we share a bond of democratic union and the fortune of a great inheritance preserved and perfected by so many before us. Their blood and beneficence binds us in common obligations that transcend party or petty opinion. We are summoned by their sacrifice to the work of crafting an ever more perfect union, a task that calls upon us not only to remember the causes and concerns and driving ideals of those who initiated this fine experiment in liberty but also to renew our understanding of what makes us Americans in our own right. While such exertions are certainly difficult, let us be both humbled and encouraged to ease, that they are a mere fraction of what so many have forfeit in our common defense.
It is in that spirit of republican brotherhood and sisterhood that I implore you to conversation and discourse. A spirit Thomas Jefferson believed was part of the “creed of our political faith,” an “essential principle of our Government” being “the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason.”
So, stranger, at last I meet you at that bar of public reason at a time when our nation’s passions are strained by an understandable fear, a manufactured confusion, and a justified anger. It is here I would like to appeal to your better angels on behalf of a people a world away, embroiled in a tragic conflict we helped foment, who are even now desperately seeking refuge from an evil we know all too well. If you should permit me your continued attention, I hope to address every concern, every rejoinder, every critique that those who oppose the refugee resettlement effort commonly announce while putting forward a positive case that accepting these refugees is not only in keeping with our national identity and our national morality, but with our national security as well.
It is helpful at the outset to understand the scope of the problem. The civil war in Syria began nearly five years ago in March of 2011. To date, 250,000 Syrians have perished. 11 million have been forced from their homes, including 5.6 million children. 4 million Syrians have fled the country seeking refuge. Many have suggested, in ignorance if not in hate, that these individuals are “desert nomads,” and many others have wondered why they do not take up arms in defense of their country. Let us dismiss both these absurdities. First, Syrians are much like us… those in the conflict zone even more so. This conflict is unfolding in the cities and suburbs of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo to name a few. The displaced are families whose everyday concerns mirror our own. Their children attend schools, they own shops and have jobs in factories and offices, they shop at supermarkets and dress in western fashion, they have computers and cell phones and television. They are a largely modern people living in a largely modern society that is set in an ancient place. The assault against them should serve as a caution to those who believe their personal firearms are some salve against tyranny. They are bombarded from the sky with rockets filled with sarin gas, with mortars, with barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s air force. Their cities are cut off from food and water to instigate starvation and disease. So while there is an active rebel force of Syrians fighting for their country, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that refugees return to the fight when in all likelihood they would simply be returning to slaughter.
Those who have fled the conflict have poured primarily into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and other North African states. Nations which bear little responsibility for the conflict and who are variously ill equipped to handle the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people with nothing. To put the challenge in perspective, Germany, one of Europe’s strongest states economically, has taken in roughly 45,000 Syrians (1% of the refugees) and is experiencing a small measure of political and economic turmoil as a result. Europe has absorbed, in total, less than 25% of the refugees while the far less stable aforementioned nations have absorbed nearly 75%. This disparity is a threat to our national security for several reasons. When states are overburdened there is increased risk of civil strife, deprivation, ignorance, violence and potentially state-failure. Not only does this create fertile ground for radicalization, but it also risks a cascade effect by which a violent and failing Iraq and Syria precipitate, through a bleeding of refugees, violent and failing sister states on their borders which in turn bleed even more refugees. This necessitates either increased resources to address the humanitarian crisis, military intervention to restore order and capable governance, and/or the isolation of a failed region from the rest of the world (an option that may sound attractive to some, but has devastating consequences as it creates the kinds of safe havens from which we can be attacked and complicates our economic interests in the region). Furthermore it increases the likelihood of an existential threat to Israel, which shares a border with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
Therefore, it is critical to our own national security and economic interests, as well as to the national security interests of our closest Middle Eastern ally, that we do our best to spread the burden of absorbing these refugees evenly.
There are those who argue that nations like Saudi Arabia are not doing their part. They are not wrong. Saudi Arabia absolutely should accept refugees from Syria. However, that they are not doing so is not a justification for thusly avoiding our own fair share of the burden. Such logic would empower a single state to indemnify the irresponsibility of all others.
There are those who argue that our response should come in the form of cash assistance and the formation and support of refugee camps. While this must be part of our response, it is not enough. First, refugee camps still must exist in host countries and remain a strain on their resources. Second, refugee camps are notoriously dangerous settings given how ineffectively they are policed. Third, refugee camps are inefficient distributors of resources (as any self-respecting conservative would agree is true of any centrally planned economy). Fourth, refugee camps are easily infiltrated by desperation, which is too easily assuaged by radicalism, which is bolstered by the group think that can emerge when you are surrounded by the suffering of your countrymen. An orderly process of refugee resettlement into already-stable free-market communities reduces strain on the countries that host the camps, it saves the cost of having to establish new state services like medical care, garbage collection, policing, and it allows individuals access to markets in which they can meet their needs efficiently.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that we are fighting both an immediate and conventional battle on the ground as well as a generational one in the hearts and minds of individuals. We are not merely battling men, but corrupted ideas— and to that battle we cannot bring bombs alone, but must offer the example of our benevolence also. There is an unquantifiable benefit, paid in dividends that will forever be invisible because they exist as people not radicalized, plots never conceived, animosities never given the chance to form or flourish. These benefits are accrued by the profound power of compassion as it multiplies, as refugees share the stories of the kindness and morality of Americans; of the blessings they see visited upon our nation by dint of our uncompromising commitments to liberty, and pluralism, and protection of the weak and wanting. We are engaged in a struggle between mythologies, and so exposing those who might otherwise be convinced that ours is an inferior way of life to the plenty and pleasures of freedom has value.
Given then that it is in our direct national security and economic interest to prevent cascading state failure, that spreading the burden of refugee resettlement both reduces that risk and is in an of itself a more efficient method of handling the crisis, that it is in keeping with our commitments to our closest allies to prevent further instability in the region, and that we benefit from our own benevolence it seems irrefutable that we should accept refugees.
Of course, those opposed to resettlement again interject their concern. Their arguments follow a familiar route: There are many ISIS fighters in Syria. ISIS fighters wish us harm. ISIS fighters want to infiltrate the United States to do us harm. ISIS fighters have said they will use the refugee stream to infiltrate Europe, so why not the US? ISIS attacked Paris, and, they believe, a refugee was involved. They claim, erroneously, that the FBI Director has said we cannot vet the Syrians. They argue that we cannot be certain of our screening process especially in the face of the fact that Syria is in collapse. They argue we are safer to simply refuse Syrian refugees.
There are many reasons why this argument, while emotionally compelling, is false.
It is undeniable that there are ISIS fighters in Syria and that they wish to do us harm. But the refugee process is the unlikeliest of methods for them to choose to infiltrate the US, if only because it is the path that carries the greatest risk of detection.
To begin with, the UNCHR has to find you eligible for resettlement and choose you for the pipeline to the United States. This process takes months, and there is but a 1% chance you’ll be cleared and set on a path the US. Already, this seems an imprudent method for terrorists to use. But the process isn’t over. Refugees who are given the opportunity to apply for refugee status must then “be referred to the Resettlement Support Center and pass that extensive background check and in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security [which includes submitting extensive forms, original documents which are submitted to forensic verification, and biometrics including digital fingerprinting and iris scans], in addition to further security clearance processes from the Consular Lookout and Support System and potentially the Security Advisory Opinion. [Only] if all of these bodies say we’re clear and then we pass the medical screening, are matched with a sponsor agency, and then pass an additional security check to see if anything new has developed” will the refugee be admitted.
In the face of this process critics make several objections. First, they say, the FBI Director says we can’t vet Syrian refugees. But that is not, in fact, what he said. He said, “if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in a way that would get their identity or interest reflected in our databased we can query until the cows come home and nothing will come up.”
So in other words: “if they haven’t done anything to bring themselves to the FBI’s attention,there is no reason the FBI would have information about them in our database.”
Do we expect that we have government files on every Syrian Man, Woman, and Child of woman born? And why do we assume that not being in an FBI database is a reason to be suspicious? One would think the opposite would be the case. And the fact remains that the FBI isn’t the only agency involved in the process… the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center all have databases they maintain that refugees are checked against, databases that include information from foreign intelligence sources we partner with.
But detractors persist: Well how can we expect to have good information from a place like Syria given the state of their nation? To answer that question, a comparison is in order. In 2013 alone, the US accepted refugees from Somalia (7k refugees) and Sudan (2k refugees) and Eritrea (1.8k) and Iraq (19.4k) and Iran (2.5k). All of these states are either failed or unstable or home to radical elements, all of them share a high concentration of Islamic extremists.
We’ve been undertaking this process, accepting refugees from these places, for decades. Out of over 780,000 refugees admitted since 9/11/2001, “exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.” Mathematically speaking that’s a .0003% failure rate. So we’ve got a pretty good track record as far as the refugee process goes in relation to keeping out extremists using the rigorous process we have in place now.
Critics continue: but .0003% isn’t certain. And they’re right. But if the logic is: only certainty is acceptable, then mustn’t we shut down all international tourism and cancel all employment visas, and all border crossings since we can’t be certain that someone won’t slip through those LESS secure methods of entering the country?
Which is the other absurd part of critics argument. The truth is, there are simply far easier ways to make ones way into the United States undetected. It’s as if we were considering the actions of a bank robber confronted with a bank with two doors… one heavily guarded, one basically wide open.
What robber would say “instead of maximizing my chance of getting in, let me go the heavily guarded route where I’m far more likely to get caught!” It simply doesn’t make sense.
Except! The critics reply, ISIS has said they would use the refugee stream to infiltrate the US. Except they didn’t. The source of this claim is a buzzfeed interview with an ISIS member who was discussing using the refugee stream to infiltrate Europe, not the US. This is a key difference. The refugee settlement system in Europe, to the extent that nations have them, is far less secure than our own by virtue of our geographic separation from the site of the conflict. We have the luxury of a far more robust process that resists the pitfalls of mass migration since there is no way for the refugees to move en masse into our territory. Thus, a strategy that works to infiltrate Europe does not work as a method of infiltrating the US.
At this point the charge that the ‘all’ the refugees are fighting aged men usually appears. But this claim is not only untrue of the mass of displaced persons, it is a disingenuous claim given that the refugees in the pipeline to the US are distinctly composed from the full population of the displaced. When you distinguish between “All refugees” and refugees in the pipeline to the US you find that, since the US has directed the UNHCR to prioritize orphans, children, women, and the elderly: 1/2 of the refugees in the pipeline to the US are children. 1/4 are elderly. The remaining 1/4 are adult women and men. Only 2% are males of ‘combat age.’
Thus we reach a point in the argument where it seems well established that the refugee process is the most onerous possible route for a terrorist to take to infiltrate the US, not only because there are there easier ways to enter that increase the chances of success, but because we have a vetting process with a remarkably successful and proven track record even with regards to unstable and radical states.
But simply eliminating, point by point, the objections of those who would close the door on Syrian refugees is not enough. On a very important level, this is an argument driven by emotion, by a sense of right and wrong. To that end I am reminded of a dense, but wise quote from George Washington that is worth reading carefully:
“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Rationality and caution must play a primary role in our decision making process… but when reason exercised eliminates the basis for opposition, that opposition makes a final appeal to safety. We keep hearing this breathless concern for American lives, from people who have resisted any action on the epidemic of gun death that takes 30,000 American lives every year, who have undermined the agencies and regulations that aim to keep us safe from pollution and poison, whose world-views have fomented the danger to begin with.
This selective care for American’s well being renders their concerns suspect. But even if they are taken at their word, are we not forced to wonder what an American life is worth if we abandon, at the slightest hint of danger, the ideals that make being an American something to be proud of?
It is not an argument based in rationality, or statistics, or a cold assessment of national interest (though I believe we have the high ground on all those fronts) but from time to time circumstance tests our values, and the strength of our commitment to our highest ideals.
We ought to be a nation that feels a duty towards our fellow man when he is in peril.
We ought to be a nation of virtue who follow that eternal rule of right that the strong defend the weak.
We ought to be a nation that opens our doors rather than one who sends checks and well-wishes to some far off hell to soothe our conscious.
We ought to be that nation because that is who we’ve claimed to be.
The indispensable nation.
The shining city on a hill.
A land of providence and grace…
…and the home of the brave.
We’re supposed to be the heroes.
I still believe we can be. I firmly believe we must be.
But it is not up to me. It is left instead to our collective judgement as expressed by our leaders. Let us at least endeavor for that judgement to be well considered. Let us at least strive to reach reasonable conclusions that resonate both with our ideals and with our safety. For strangers though we may be, might we not yet be friends?