Photo credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris, the outpouring of support for the city was nothing short of overwhelming, dominating newsfeeds and airwaves. In the week that followed, the question of whether the United States should accept refugees from Syria touched off one of the most divisive debates in recent memory.
Both the immediate reaction and the way it has hideously morphed into a line in the sand should tell us something about ourselves and the lives we truly value.
It’s natural that our compassion for the victims in Paris would flow quickly. It is a compassion rooted in affinity for a city our country often romanticizes. It is also a compassion tinged with fear. ”They look like me.” “I have friends there.” “I’ve been on those streets.” “That could just as easily have been us.”
There is nothing wrong with our immediate and profuse mourning for Paris, but that doesn’t make it right that our compassion for others in farther reaches of the globe rarely even begins. Similar attacks in Beirut the day before and in Mali one week after received barely a fraction of the attention.
We say that we can’t care about everything. We can’t carry that much hurt in our hearts. We can’t grieve for every crisis that befalls our world or we would do little else but grieve.
If we truly believe our capacity for compassion is the problem here, we are kidding ourselves. And we are only hurting ourselves in the long run.
When we grieve only with those who “look like us,” we draw an ever thicker boundary between the part of the world we are saying warrants our compassion and the part of the world we are saying we can’t devote our mental or emotional energy toward. When we wall ourselves off from compassion for those we don’t identify with–because they come from a city of ruin rather than a city of light–we only perpetuate a divide that gives root to the seeds of fear and hatred–on both sides.
There is not an easy answer for how to transcend the borders we build in our hearts and extend our compassion and mercy beyond our comfort zones, but we have to start by being open to the idea. And the past week brought about one of the best possible opportunities.
By now, both sides of the debate over whether to welcome Syrian refugees are firmly entrenched. One side is motivated by a desire to alleviate the suffering of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The other side is motivated by a desire to protect our country from the risk of terrorism at a time in our history where the “enemy” is less clearly defined than ever before.
Both of these are rational motivations. So why has the debate become so irrational and so polarized?
I think that part of it–though certainly not all–is rooted in the search for assurances. When we are afraid, we want as much certainty as possible. Those who are afraid of admitting Syrian refugees want assurances that our country’s open arms do not also open us to the risk of terrorism. And so they conclude that closing our borders to these refugees altogether is the easiest way to fulfill that guarantee, ignoring the longer-term implications that has anti-American sentiment.
Short of an all-out moratorium on admitting Syrian refugees, those who fear for our country’s security seek other forms of assurance. The House of Representatives want additional vetting and personal “certification” by the director of the FBI for every individual refugee from Syria, providing a convenient person to blame should someone with ill intent indeed slip through. Several presidential candidates have suggested screening that only allows refugees who can “prove” they are Christians to be considered for resettlement, an idea that thumbs its nose at our country’s founding principles. And the most frightening is Trump’s absolutely abhorrent idea of labeling and tracking Muslims, a dangerous proposition that ignores some of the most important lessons of our collective history.
Among those who support the notion of welcoming refugees, myself included, what has been problematic is the urge to respond to these fears with defenses that play precisely to the desire for assurance and certainty. We cite the fact that the majority of those who would be resettled are children, women and senior citizens. We tout the lengthy and incredibly thorough vetting process that refugees, particularly those from Syria, endure. We plaster Facebook with infographics stating that only three of the more than 750,000 refugees resettled since 9/11 have been arrested on terrorism charges. We argue that a terrorist seeking to do us harm would be better off finding any other way to get into our country than the refugee route.
These defenses are meant not only to counter the rhetoric of fear but also to assert that the people turning to us for help should not be painted with a single brush. But they can come across as though we are trying to promise that nothing will go wrong.
The fact is no one can guarantee that every refugee who comes from Syria will stay on the right side of the law. But no one can guarantee that of every person born and raised in America either. We’ve certainly seen time and again the terror and violence we can inflict on ourselves.
Extending compassion and mercy is an act of trust and vulnerability. It carries risk. We can and should mitigate that risk as much as possible, but our rationale for accepting refugees should not just be that we have winnowed the risk down to an acceptable level. We can and should consider the implications that our actions have on our short- and long-term security and reputation in the world, but our rationale for whether to accept refugees should not just be whether it is in our strategic interest.
First and foremost, our rationale should be that showing compassion and mercy to people who have been through unspeakable horrors is the right thing to do.
We have an opportunity to do profound good and to alleviate human suffering, even if only for a fraction of the millions of refugees whose lives have been uprooted. To say that we are willing to let thousands of people suffer simply because we are too afraid means we believe our peace of mind is worth more than their lives.