Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Refugees and Recognizing Hard Questions

In the midst of the first wave of articles on the refugee crisis in Europe, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

"My attitude towards the refugee crisis in Europe is pre-intellectual. When a starving child asks you for food, you feed him. When a person is drowning and you have a lifeboat, you provide it for him. It's not the time to weigh pros and cons. I don't care about the near- or long-term ramifications to the continent's culture or economy. I don't care about the complaints that refugees might prefer to live in richer countries and not in poor countries. I don't care that Malta and Italy might be disproportionately affected under EU laws. I don't care that the natural path of immigrants lays an extra burden on Hungary's security. I don't care about the integrity of a country's borders. I don't care if any of the statements above suggest a misreading of the controversy. I don't need you to correct me. I...DO...NOT...FUCKING...CARE. 
"I am not going to mention any of my personal experiences of Hungary, where I spent a year of my life, to shed any light on this situation. I am not going to discuss how any of my travels through the rest of Europe may shed light on the situation. My personal experiences are irrelevant. 
Does this video make you angry? If the answer is yes, congratulations, you're officially a member of 99% of the human race. Let me ask you these questions: What is the difference between this woman, and the people of Europe, North America and the rest of the Middle East, who are unsure of exactly what they're supposed to do in this situation? How is their inability to make a decision any less destructive than this sociopath's behavior? Are the answers to these questions easy? If so, you're a very different person than I am."

An old friend from Eastern Europe took this personally and responded with a string of attacks that struck me as ad hominem, mostly about how I was writing this from my comfortable living room in America while Bulgaria had to take in 2000 refugees.  Bulgaria, for what it's worth, has a population of 7.1 million people.  Two thousand refugees did not strike me as a terrible burden, particularly for a country that had enjoyed the largesse of the European Union, and which contained several abandoned hotels constructed amid a climate of corruption and greed.  I believed those hotels could easily house refugees.  The discussion was heated.  She de-friended me.  I moved on with my life.
My attitude was the attitude of many, the kind of thought process that is triggered by photographs of dead children.  Even the staunchest logician shuts himself down when faced with arguments that may be legitimate.  I have never taken defenses of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombings with any seriousness.  Many people far smarter than me have made those arguments, but there's very little you can say that will make me support the instant incineration of thousands and the creation of a cancer zone.  
Even now, after a horrific attack against a culture not all that different from my own by what one of the world's most evil organizations (there's a lot of competition), I stand by my initial response.  When a child is hungry, you feed him.  When a man is drowning, you save him.  When I stop and try to be an intellectual, I apply my cold, hard, utilitarian logic and I estimate that 99.99 percent of these refugees are not trying to kill anyone in Europe or North America.  The chances of any of that .01 percent getting through and killing a few thousand people is higher than I would like it to be, but it seems a small price to pay for the lives of hundreds of thousands.  And anyway, that .01 percent of refugees seems less dangerous to me than the homegrown terrorists, the middle-class nihilists who get into ISIS the way other teenagers get into Dungeons and Dragons.
Still, my liberal friends and I may be wrong.  And even if we're not, we live in a political system that has to accommodate the fears of small-minded bigots as well as decent people who have every right to fear for their own families and communities, and who are just as pre-intellectual in their assumptions as I am in mine.  You come to accept a political reality in which you have to bargain with those neighbors. You agree to accept a few thousand refugees here, another few thousand there, and as you bargain, you cringe at the thought of how long it takes and of the children languishing in hellish camps, some of whom you'll be able to save and some of whom you won't.  
If you demand that we feed all the children and that we save all the drowning men, you won't save any.  If you agree not to feed all the children and you let some men drown, you may save a few.  You won't be the first person in history to make such compromises.  You won't be the first to hate yourself for doing so.

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