Refugees & Terrorists

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.


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