Refugees and Bart Simpson’s Paradox

Refugees and Bart Simpson’s Paradox November 22, 2015

In the summer of 2002, Brent Scowcroft published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal under the self-explanatory title “Don’t Attack Saddam.” His analysis was as incisive and free from partisan malice as one might expect from a former Air Force lieutenant-general and national security adviser to two Republican presidents.

Someone must have paid attention. I didn’t. The antiwar case that penetrated my consciousness came from the likes of Michael Moore and Natalie Maines, from protestors carrying signs reading “The only Bush I trust is my own” and “We support the troops when they kill their officers.” They made a momentary neocon of me. Years passed before I realized what spanking good advice Scowcroft had given.

The lesson is that there are smart and stupid ways of making every case. As Damon Linker writes in The Week, the smart way involves conceding that some issues involve competing goods and may require compromise. The stupid way involves pretending the other guy’s case is nothing but fluff.

As I’ve written before, I am strongly disposed to admit and settle the refugees. I base this disposition on principle – part American, part Christian. On the American side is our country’s tradition of offering entry and opportunity to those in need. On the Christian side is that tiresome imperative to welcome the stranger, along with all the Corporal Works of Mercy.

True, these refugees could find shelter in other places – Turkey or Jordan, for example. Turkey has done enough. As of March, 2015, it had already absorbed 1.7 million at a cost of $5 billion. Though I’m no fan of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the old buzzard has, in this case, earned a break.

But the case for caution is anything but fluff. As goods go, you can’t find a more respectable competitor than security. As we’re all grimly aware, a mere handful of people with small arms can inflict a ghastly amount of damage, both in terms of human life and national morale, in an eyeblink. Nobody should think too harshly of the governors – and now the congressmen – refusing to increase the risk of such a horror in their constituencies.

As FBI Director James Comey has admitted, procedures for screening would-be refugees are not airtight. Though no refugees admitted since 1980 have managed to carry out terroristic plans, a number have tried. In 2011, the FBI arrested two Iraqi refugees who had bought fake explosives from undercover agents and were preparing to ship them home, to al-Qaeda. It emerged that both had taken part in the Iraqi insurgency – a fact that had eluded investigators who’d processed their applications.

After declaring a six-month halt to the Iraqi refugee program – an act that seems not to have earned it any widespread accusations of xenophobia – the Obama administration tried to tighten the net. New protocols, including criminal background checks, did succeed in screening out almost 24,000 high-risk Iraqi applicants. But there is reason to fear they’ll be less effective on Syrians. With the Assad regime reluctant to open its records, there’s less material to check against.

For all that, the numbers are encouraging. The Migration Policy Institute, a bipartisan think tank, reports that the US has resettled 780,000 refugees since 2001. Of that number, exactly three, including the two Iraqis mentioned earlier, were arrested for plotting an act of terror. Of the 799,997 innocents, more than 80,000 were Iraqi, and 2,200 Syrian.

Of course, to anyone contemplating the panicked press of bodies in the Bataclan, odds and statistics are worse than irrelevant. They are, as Disraeli is reported to have said, worse than lies or even damn lies. “Give me your tired, your poor” and “Welcome the stranger” sound as trite as “Become the change you want to see” or ‘Yes, we can.”

If foiling ISIS and securing the nation were a matter of barring the door to these refugees, life – and war – would be wonderfully simple. But they’re not. To ISIS, foreign infitrators are like casual sex – nice, but not strictly necessary. Amedy Coulibaly, the Kouachi brothers, and at least two of the Bataclan shooters, were all French natives. ISIS, which recently bragged that it already has 70 agents posted in 15 states, is now warning of an imminent an attack on our capital.

Maybe they’re playing head games. In view of Elton Simpson’s and Nadir Soofi’s recent (and inept) attempt to shoot up the Curtis Culwell center in Garland, Texas, that’s not the most sensible conclusion to draw. Somewhere, somehow, whatever we decide to do about these refugees, ISIS is going to make a good-faith effort to hit us hard.

That effort might fail thanks to ISIS’s incompetence or our law enforcement. But either way, because so many angles remain open to ISIS, this crowd of refugees confronts us with Bart Simpson’s paradox. We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t. Given those choices, I’d rather do the right thing by the refugees and be damned in whatever way ISIS manages to contrive.

It may be that I’ve succumbed to a new occidental strain of fatalism, but I don’t speak from any vacuum. I happen to live just a high fence away from government-subsidized housing where refugees from various African countries have been resettled. If some fresh hell is indeed due to break loose, it could well start in the nearest thing I have to a backyard.

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