Refugee Ethics

A reader and frequent commenter sent me an article by Richard D. Lamm that appeared in the Denver Post. The story is told of Martin of Tours finding a starving beggar during a 13th Century ride and dividing his cloak and dinner with the desperate man. The question is asked “What if instead of one cold and starving beggar, there are 100?” Considering the world situation, what if there are thousands or millions? There is another report that ISIS has slaughtered another several hundred people after taking a city in Iraq, and thousands or hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced. I have difficulty imagining there is anyone remaining in Syria other than the various fighting organizations or a place for an “ordinary citizen” to live. Thousands of people are taking the perilous trip across the Mediterranean to escape the anarchy and terror of Libya (and perhaps wishing Gaddafi could return). Lamm mentions increasing population “…and political unrest in most of the Middle East and Africa guarantee continued massive migration from that volatile area. Is Europe’s only ethical response to take them all in?”

Lamm mentions that “…the U.S. has its own substantial pressure from south of its boarder (sic).” He then poses the ethical dilemma. “A moral response to an individual or manageable group might not make sense if there are hundreds of thousands. Sheer numbers can totally change the ethical implications.” “The maximum generosity of the developed world cannot absorb the staggering numbers fleeing political chaos, war, violence, and lack of economic opportunity.” Later in the article he writes, “No nation can be expected to commit social and cultural suicide. No ethics can demand what the ecosystem or social fabric of a society cannot support.”

I have fretted since the first reports of ISIS slaughters in Iraq that we as a nation should feel ashamed. Regardless of your beliefs about the justification of the second Iraq War, we did overthrow Saddam Hussein and established a fledgling democracy. We then decided we were “war weary” and withdrew our soldiers. The situation that evolved was predictable. There was an opportunity, perhaps a slim opportunity, to assist in establishing a stable and perhaps even prosperous country where people wouldn’t be slaughtered because they practiced the wrong religion. We instead chose to fulfill a political promise. Is there anyone out there who continues to believe withdrawing was the right thing to do? We also helped “decapitate” the dictatorship in Libya and then sat behind our comfortable borders while terrorists took over.

Perhaps we should be asking whether we’ve learned anything. Are we going to repeat what we did to Iraq in Afghanistan?   I understand the Taliban developed a motto after the announcements that we were going to withdraw on a schedule. “You have the watch and we have the time.”

One thought on “Refugee Ethics

  1. The issue of morality played heavily in our decisions to invade Iraq and intervene in Libya.  There was an element of ethical superiority in our decision to stay in Vietnam.  As I read your email, I was watching a documentary on the first combat use of the B2 bomber, which happened to be in Kosovo in 1999.  The entire motivation for that decision, by the Clinton administration, was moral; Serbia was in the midst of an ethnic cleansing spree that NATO members agreed could not go unchallenged.  The results of that action, which set the precedent for use of air power alone to bring about regime change, worked out reasonably well.  Unfortunately.  I say that because the lesson learned there was the wrong one.  Our success in Kosovo led us to believe we could bomb and strafe our way to success anywhere, irrespective of the complicated social and religious situations on the ground.  The lessons of Vietnam were forgotten, and off we went to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya with absolute confidence in our air, and moral, superiority.  Thousands of lives and a couple trillion dollars later, it appears we will wind up leaving the field in worse, and for us more dangerous, shape than we found it.

    By now you may have guessed that I do not and did not support the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq.  I don’t think our national interests were sufficiently threatened in either case, and the outcomes have been arguably somewhere between bad and horrendous.  Most pointedly, I don’t think the US can any longer afford the cost to our own welfare that comes with the title of World’s Policeman, no matter how strong our moral compunction to fill the role might be.

    I read another relevant opinion piece recently which described WWII as our last “good war”.  By this, the author meant that it was fought for a cause the whole country believed in, and with someone in almost every family, rich or poor, serving in the military, we were all intimately involved. From war bonds to toilet paper shortages, scrap metal drives to women having to leave the kitchen and take up the rivet gun, every household had skin in the game.  Now our military ventures are connected to most of us only by cable news, and they seem to have no noticeable effect on out daily lives.  That would be a good thing, if these ventures were producing demonstrably positive, lasting results.  They are not.  The futility of our incursions in the Middle East under the rubric of a War on Terror becomes more obvious to more people every week.  The War on Terror, by almost any standard, is not a good war.

    In the context of history we have always made an effort to construct a sound moral argument to back up our behavior as a society.  Slave ownership was once considered a moral obligation, since without the benevolence of Christian oversight the black man could not survive on his own. Manifest Destiny was touted in the highest moral terms.  Times, fortunately, do change, but the last time I checked, countries were still countries.  They still can be counted upon to act in their own interests first and work out the moral rationalities later.  

    A high ethical and moral standard is to be greatly valued in individual people.  A nation that insists upon carrying that standard into battle against other nations, or other religions, does so at its peril.

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