Response and Responsibility

It was a pleasant afternoon in late summer 2015 in the Aksaray district of Istanbul. My friends I had met on my study abroad program, and I had gone for a walk and were enjoying the lively street scene. At some point, one of them stopped to take a picture of a storefront, and a rather displeased proprietor came out, insisting that my friend delete the photo from his phone.

My friend had snapped a photo of a store that sold life jackets. We had heard that there were many such stored up and down coastal Turkey that sold shoddy pieces of survival gear to Syrians and Iraqis who tried to cross the Mytilini Strait to Lesbos, Greece. Hundreds of people have died making this crossing. It had only been a few days after my arrival at my host school that the now-infamous photo of a dead child washed up on a Greek beach.

While abroad, I also had a chance to teach English to kids aging from five to 13 whose families had fled Iraq and Syria. At some point I asked them what their favorite place in the world was. The most common answer was Aleppo and other places in northern Syria that these kids called home. The second-most popular answer was “America.” In a year’s time the conditions that drove people from their homes en masse still exist. The Middle East is no more safe now than it was then. There are still daily reports of bombing, fighting and the occasional muted rumors of war crimes and other atrocities. What has changed is that our new president has disgracefully halted all refugees from the war zone from entering the United States, even ones approved for resettlement.

The wars in Syria and Iraq have produced the greatest displacement of people since World War II. There have been a slew of articles comparing the refugees coming from the Middle East to Jews fleeing Europe in the late 1930’s. However, there is one key difference between the two cases: The United States wasn’t yet bombing Europe. The same cannot be said for Iraq and Syria.

You can blame Obama or Bush for our present predicament, but ultimately it’s beside the point to do so. The U.S. is an active party in both conflicts, having committed air assets and ground forces to both Iraq and Syria. To borrow from former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, “if you break it, you own it.” The large number of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq indicates that we do in fact “own” this crisis.

President Obama left a rigorous framework for vetting potential refugees and asylum seekers. It’s a 20-step process involving investigations by the U.N., the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department that checks international databases for any terrorist connections. I could elaborate, but the point is that Trump’s idea that these people are “the great Trojan Horse” for terrorism is an unfounded absurdity.

This is not just a policy issue. The capital gains tax is a policy issue. Infrastructure investment is a policy issue. Debating the regulatory authority of the EPA is a policy issue. This is a moral issue in the purest sense of things, a test of our resolve to do what is right in dire circumstances.

I’ve heard the full gamut of arguments for why we need to keep this immigration ban in place, but the most popular is (ostensibly) that we must protect ourselves from potential terrorists. This argument is flawed at best: we have more to fear from native-born Americans who are radicalized, or from mass shootings. Locking out war refugees won’t solve our problems. Nor do we get to decide that this crisis is of no concern to us. We are at least partially responsible for the chaos engulfing the region. I want to continue to believe that we as Americans are as good and righteous a people as we claim to be. But when I see my countrymen, my neighbors, even some of my friends express emotions that range from fear to outright callousness, I admit I’m filled with doubt.