Syria and Paris: symptoms rather than problems

Over the past days I have watched the American responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris with growing apprehension, responses marked by misinformation, faulty logic, and a notable absence of compassion.

But I have to admit something that may seem strange: I’m not upset with everyone who responded this way.

True, I don’t agree with the 30 + U.S. Governors, or the electorates that they represent, who advocate barring Syrian refugees from the United States (and from their respective states in particular).1 I don’t agree with the Republican presidential candidates who advocate admitting only Christian immigrants (Ted Cruz, Jed Bush) or even with candidate Donald Trump, who proposes maintaining a database and surveillance on all Syrian refugees (and maybe even sending all of the Syrians “back home”).2

Indeed, the very fact that the majority of people who oppose the immigration of Syrian refugees (or at least, all of the reports I have read concerning the opinions of such folks) claim to do so because of the possibility of admitting terrorist agents / radicalized Muslims is itself telling. It shows that they misunderstand the nature of the threat and the solutions currently in place, and so offer an incorrect response.

Specifically, the level of scrutiny, the uncertainty of selection, the long wait, and the advantages of other methods make immigration the least likely means of “infiltrating” the United States or Canada. For example, both countries require that Syrian refugees must pass three distinct review processes. Next both countries preference families, single mothers, orphans and the elderly. Further, the review process is lengthy and is generally proceeded by several years in a refugee camp—a long time to have potential fighters “out of action.” Finally, tourist visas are far easier to obtain and tourist access is far freer and more immediate.3

As if to confirm this, only 3 of 784,000 refugees accepted to the United States since 2001 have been indicted for attempted terrorism, and none of the attempts were against Americans or on American soil.4 So why would a potential terrorist try to immigrate when there are easier ways to perpetrate terrorism?

They wouldn’t.

Instead, I believe that the facts support a different view of the matter—and so a different response—which I will consider below. Yet while I disagree with them, I’m not surprised to encounter them.

I’m not surprised because the world is filled with people who believe that the “right way” to live is to prioritize yourself, your family, and your culture / way of life at all times. Whether we call this “looking out for number one,” failing to care for others or just being “ethnocentric,” these responses are prevalent. Sad I think, but not surprising.

I respond to such thinking along four lines: pragmatic, philosophical, general and personal.

Pragmatically, the very ability to prioritize oneself, one’s goals and “way of life” necessitates living in an environment that is sufficiently compatible with / conducive to these goals.

For example, the practice of giving foreign aid (for both development and relief) is not only altruistic but also self-serving. In the short term it abates despair, and therefore renders foreign populations far less vulnerable to embracing radical viewpoints, which reduces global threats. In the long term, insofar as it helps to re-establish stability and normalcy foreign aid helps not only helps reduces foreign threats but creates trading partners, and trade is the vehicle that allows us to fulfill many of our self-interests.

Philosophically, I would argue that militantly promoting my good (or preemptively ‘preserving’ it, as an indiscriminate “better safe than sorry” campaign) is precisely what extremists are hoping for.

For example, where radical organizations seek to polarize respondents (either to fully embrace their distorted rhetoric or by their militant rejection to become the “enemy” that these organizations depict all “others” to be), responding purely with fear and exclusion is exactly the response that they are looking for!5

Generally, the distance between terrorist acts and the acts of mentally unbalanced people is remarkably small, maybe even indistinguishable.

For example, in the US we can think about the Oklahoma bomber or the man in 2010 who flew his plane into an IRS office, or the recent abortion clinic shootings in Colorado Springs.6 Committed by foreigners we would likely call these people “terrorists.” Committed by Americans these people are typically called “mentally disturbed” or “unwell.”7 Such events are very similar, but our responses to them are very different.8

Personally, I would argue that seeking my own good often results in me deprioritizing myself / some of my desires and also risking myself / my well-being.

For example, in a relationship where I have been hurt or mistreated I am faced with the need, if the relationship is to continue, to privilege trust and forgiveness over suspicion and resentment. Similarly, as author Brenée Brown notes, human mental and emotional health requires (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively) that we continue to embrace our own vulnerability.9 In all cases, I need to be open to the idea that “protecting” and insulating myself may actually be self-destructive.

Yet while I disagree with them, my beef is not necessarily with those presidential candidates, those American Governors, or their electorates.

Regardless of whether their motivation is personal, familial, or cultural (or a blend of them) these are not the people with whom I most disagree. Instead, my beef is with Christians—evangelical Christians—who hold these views. More to the point, my beef is with much of evangelical Christianity itself.

In other words, I believe that there is something deeply wrong at the core of typical evangelicalism.


Next post I specify “Why evangelicalism?” and explain “What exactly is wrong?”

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