Two months ago, I wrote a piece on the refugee crisis that I shopped around to a number of outlets, but I could not find a taker for it before media interests had changed to a degree that made the piece seem obsolete at the time. This often happens to writers, of course, and at some point one has to put it on the shelf and move on to something else. In this case, however, I was troubled by how events in the last two weeks have made what I wrote suddenly relevant in a new way. Several predictions I made at that time have, unfortunately, come to pass much sooner than I had anticipated.
However, I was completely wrong about one major thing, which I will describe here briefly and then you will see below, where I have reproduced the piece without any updates to the content as it stood two months ago. My topic was the lack of interest of the American public in the refugee crisis, and I offered several materialistic and interest-based reasons that Americans should "care" about the refugee crisis beyond the obvious moral reasons. What I had not prepared for was the way in which the recent Paris attacks and the shootings in San Bernardino would alter the conversation about the refugee crisis. I had approached the matter as one of providing some direction toward an antidote for apathy. I had not considered the possibility that if Americans did begin to "care," that the way that they would do so would be in the form of incendiary xenophobia of a startlingly fascist texture.
It is interesting, and in this case rather frightening, to look at the naïveté of my take on the problem, pre-Paris. I really had not thought that American society would go from a near-total lack of interest to a near-total hysteria of hate and fear. What ended up happening is akin to a person snoozing by a pool being bumped in and, in a second, going from motionlessness to arm-flapping frenzy.
Without further introduction, here is the piece I wrote in late September 2015:
5 Reasons Why Americans Should Care About the Refugee Crisis
My wife and I are big fans of Stephen Colbert, particularly because of his history of bringing awareness to important issues and contributing to important causes. Part of his appeal is that he is a good person. Imagine our disappointment, then, that we’re still waiting for something more than a passing mention of the global refugee crisis from his new pulpit as host of The Late Show. Still, maybe it’s not really Colbert's fault. It just shows that America doesn’t really care very much about the refugees and isn’t really interested in doing anything about helping them.
It’s hard to deny Americans’ lack of interest in this issue. Despite the ripples of shock felt here over images of the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey on September 2nd, that boy’s death and his family’s pain hasn’t sparked a movement in this country. It was a blip on the radar of a country consumed with less important things, like the wiles of Donald Trump. The conservative blowhard that Colbert lampooned so well may be gone, but Colbert the real person is still at his core a reflection of the American reality, as are we all. All of us tend to care about things only if lots of people start caring.
Herein lies a hard question, though. Why should Americans care about the refugee crisis? It is easy to state moral reasons: they are people like us, they are victims of vast conflicts beyond their control, they are dying in the thousands. The problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t get us very far in actually responding to the issue, even though it seems like it does. Feeling something is not a form of aid; it’s a pat on the back for confirming one’s ability to still feel anything at all in a world filled with human suffering. Eventually, I’ve no doubt we’ll tally the numbers and find that millions of refugees attempting to flee Middle Eastern and African conflicts died. At that time, we’ll shake our heads in sincere but impotent regret and open a new tab to check Facebook, just like we’re doing right now as the crisis unfolds.
If we’re not going to do anything with our moral indignation, perhaps we should thus be painfully self-centered about the situation—because the refugee crisis in fact affects us and our way of life very negatively, and it is to our economic and political benefit to work together to resolve the issue. So, with the coldness of logic applied, here are five reasons why Americans should care about the refugee crisis:
1. The longer the refugee crisis continues, the more it will cost America money. We don’t like to calculate human costs in terms of dollars, but human lives have an economic value. Alan Kurdi not only died needlessly, he died without the opportunity to contribute to the global economy. And not all refugees will die during their flight, but they will not have an economic profile until they settle somewhere. The United States is at the center of the most globalized network of intersecting economies in human history. The refugee crisis has the potential to act as either a negative economic catalyst or a positive one, depending on whether a cash-strapped yet aging European population decides to treat the refugees like invaders or gifts from God. American influence should be used to push Europe to consider them the latter. We need to get the refugees to safety so they can start making money and contributing to society. Until then, aid won’t produce a return on the investment and American economic activities in Europe will suffer.
2. Extremism will balloon as refugee communities find themselves in impossible situations. People who believe that religious extremism is primarily metaphysical rather than material and structural are stupid and need to, at long last, be ignored in serious discussions. Extremism is very clearly a religious response to real-world pressures, even if it is by definition an excessive response and thus irrational. This is the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since 1945. Millions of people are boxed in between borders they can’t cross and homes they can’t return to; they literally have no way out. If the situation doesn’t change quickly, many of them, especially the youth, will begin to believe in the vile messages spewed by the agent provocateurs that Islamic terrorist groups like to plant in Europe’s Muslim communities. A narrow, combative response to the crisis by the West will produce the very conditions whereby extremism emerges, and an American foreign policy that hinges on European and Middle Eastern stability will be upended.
3. The European far-right will begin to win elections. Even before the refugee crisis, far-right European parties like Hungary’s Jobbik, Finland’s True Finns, and, especially, France’s National Front were gaining ground in their respective countries as well as in the European Parliament. Other conservative parties, like Poland’s Law & Justice, are moving rightward, as party leaders have sensed that aggressive nationalism polls well. Some naïve observers discount the European far-right as a bunch of cryptofascist crazies. That may be true, but these crazies are decidedly modern in their focus: today’s nationalists in Europe are obsessed with immigration and rabidly Islamophobic. A meme making its way around Polish social media features a picture of Chernobyl, over which is written a suggestion that the refugees be sent there because it has plenty of space. Hate-filled people tend to vote for politicians who make them feel good about being miserable bastards, and the refugee crisis is their Reichstag Fire. It will be used to galvanize support for their platforms in elections for years to come. And guess what? These parties, with few exceptions, absolutely hate America too. The victory of the far-right in Europe will, as it ever has, threaten the collapse of America’s relationship with Europe.
4. Transnational proxy wars will erupt, leading to inevitable deployments of American forces. A more cynical person than I might venture that America’s hawks (almost all of whom are of the chicken variety) would pursue a non-response to the refugee crisis in order to set the stage for further fruitless wars in Muslim countries. However, even those with leveler heads (that is, any who’d balk at putting boots on the ground in the many and diverse proxy wars that will erupt as a result of this vast movement of people) should put their money where their mouth is. America’s more reasonable leaders must be willing to spend capital—both the paper and political kind—to find homes for the refugees, unless they want to be responsible for the seeds of the type of conflicts that America’s pro-war crowd is exceptionally good at getting us involved in—conflicts that, as a depressing rule, necessitate that American soldiers die for reasons that make no sense and motives that a serial killer would find rather cold and ethically suspect.
5. America will lose its reputation as a defender of the global public good (maybe for good this time). American conservatives may not believe it, but the truth is that President Obama as well as Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry have done a great deal of work to rehabilitate the image of the United States internationally after the disastrous Bush years. Even among liberals, however, there is a strange and ignorant (though probably also well-intentioned) assumption that the rest of the world hates us as power-hungry monsters. This simply isn’t true. The United States is still looked to as a beacon of relief from oppression by much of the globe—an opinion that is justified on the human if not the international level. America’s profile as a “good” country (a “true” world leader) could be invaluably reinforced by a heartier response to the crisis. On the other hand, global opinion is fickle, and a lackluster response will be punished.
America must be a leader in the response to the refugee crisis. In concrete terms, this means taking in at least several hundred thousand refugees and spending several billion dollars to aid in resettlement, at once providing direct aid to refugee communities and reducing the burden on European governments. Such actions are not merely helpful for moral reasons, and frankly they shouldn’t be. We’d never contribute to anything as a state if we required that altruism drove our actions above all other considerations. This is not Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets; we must have advantageous policies or else no good cause will be pursued beyond self-righteous, think-of-the-children tsk-tsking. In this case, America’s main benefit in responding to the refugee crisis is relational and reputational, as the line between outsiders’ judgment of America as Great Savior or Great Satan can be extremely thin. Alan Kurdi needed a savior and didn’t get one, while his still-breathing compatriots wait in limbo for theirs.