Migrants and the Road to Character
10,000 is not enough. Why the United States must do more to take in Syria’s refugees.
In his brilliant new book, The Road to Character, the New York Times’s sharp-eyed commentator David Brooks talks about how each of us individually ought to be thinking less about our “resume virtues” (accomplishments, high-level positions, economic achievement) and far more about our “eulogy virtues” — what truly matters at our core: courage, honesty, virtue, and integrity. He is entirely correct. So let’s apply that to our nation as a whole.
Like people, nations face moments when they must place the highest value on their values, not on their resume. The migration crisis emanating from the Levant is such a moment.
Today the world — not just Europe — confronts a massive refugee crisis as the broken and tragic nation of Syria becomes truly untenable as a place to carve out even the most basic level of life. Waves of refugees trudge north and west, seeking a respite from a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced close to 10 million. The horrific Islamic State with its human slavery, open policies of child rape, executions by torture, and use of chemical weapons has rendered what was once Syria a scene out of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road.
What remains is a sort of brutal version of The Hunger Games, where hundreds of thousands compete to escape, knowing that only some small subset will survive the contest. Consider, if you can stand to do so, what unthinkable courage and determination it takes to pick up your 2-year-old daughter, drag your uncomprehending 4-year old son, sell everything you own, and begin a dangerous, expensive 2,000-mile march to Europe.
What do we do in response? Who are we — not as individuals, and not even as nations — but as a civilization?
If this is the road to character, reviews of our performance at this point are mixed, to say the least.
We see some nations standing and delivering — Germany and Austria, for example. Others are brutally harassing and obstructing those who would merely pass through their borders. And others still are hanging back, trying to make that case that this is not their problem, not their fault, not anything worse than what happens all over the world every day.
The Europeans will find their way to generally helping the refugees, and there are nascent levels of support. They are stumbling, but appear to be at least on the first few miles of the road to character.
What should the United States be doing? Where are we?
Many here would say we have our own problems, that leaning in to help is a dangerous precedent to set, that we deal with our own migration issues, that some jihadists will slip through the net to harm us.
There is some truth in all of that; but it does not trump the higher values we need to follow.
The migration crisis is not merely a European problem. It is a trans-Atlantic problem that cuts to the core of what we mean by “the West” and one that challenges our deepest values. There is much here to fear; but certainly Angela Merkel has it exactly right when she says, “Fear is a bad advisor.”
There are challenges and concerns about the potential for jihadists to infiltrate the slipstream. Fair enough. We should deal with that through biometrics, big data analysis of cyber and cell-phone trails, and the many other tools we have created.
The United States can and should help.
We should first and foremost agree to take a significant number of Syrian refugees – as many as 100,000. Thus far, the Obama administration has committed to taking 10,000. That is far too few.
In the end, it will be a good transaction for the United States. Some may come and open kabob shops, but their children will run start-ups in Silicon Valley, and their grandchildren will be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. That is our history and it will repeat itself. Think about the qualities that the vast number of these refugees demonstrate to make it outside Syria: courage, determination, endurance, resourcefulness. They are a self-selected gift for the nation that receives them.
We should also be pushing NATO be more actively involved in the crisis. The NATO roles include intelligence surveillance and monitoring; humanitarian support to the refugee camps and the setting up of holding areas; working with European intelligence agencies on a serious vetting process for the refugee population; and search and rescue at sea for the seaborne portion of the flow.
Our American role must also include addressing the problem at its core: in the Levant. That means defeating the Islamic State, strengthening Iraq, working in an international context to find a path to stability in Syria, and providing financial support to those nations — Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon — coping with the largest numbers of displaced people.
Life is full of choices, both for people and for nations. The wise choice here is to help and support, and to put the compassion, competence, and courage of the United States on the table. That is the road to character.
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