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On compassion and security


There’s been an avalanche of thinkpieces from the left about the immigration ban – and I think they’re great because they make valid arguments, and none of those arguments are insignificant. It bears repeating that this is not okay, that we cannot be motivated by fear and hate, that we need to look back and learn from history.

But recently, I’ve been reading the National Review in an attempt to see the other side, and I came across an article that made me sit up. Not because it convinced me that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in the country – full disclosure, I’m not even American to begin with – but it was in reading this article that I realized that there are so many arguments of the right that aren’t being engaged at all.

This makes sense because some of these arguments and some of these articles are just hateful. I know that’s a judgment, but it’s also one I will not apologize for making: When we see injustice, to call it by another name is to excuse it. I’m talking about articles that, under the guise of being straightforward, use the oldest tools in the journalist’s toolbox to frame an issue so that one characteristic of a few people involved in a select number of cases – namely their religion – becomes salient. To repeatedly write “Muslim immigrant” in an article that cites five examples doesn’t prove anything but a bias.

But there are also articles that make you sit up and listen – because although you may disagree, these are valid, legitimate arguments. For me, that was an article by David French called “It’s Time for Honest Talk about Muslim Immigration.”

His main question is: “Some immigrants from jihad zones will be involved in murdering Americans. Is this an acceptable price for compassion?”

I hesitate to make my argument because it means I have to start with conceding that Muslim immigrants pose a danger, that they are inherently a group that will inevitably contain terrorists. But I want to engage with him because he does bring up some interesting points. One of his solutions, for example, makes a lot of sense to me: He proposes that a better solution than immigration would be to invest resources in people not being displaced in the first place – to address the root of the problem. That, of course, ignores the question of those already displaced, but it is a suggestion that merits more thought. But the part of his article that struck me was this:

“If the Democrats wish to maintain immigration from jihadist conflict zones, they need to rid their rhetoric of the language of ‘Islamophobia’ and tell the truth. If they want to continue admitting refugees from jihad zones, they need to make the case that meeting the humanitarian needs of an an extremely small fraction of the world’s Muslim refugees is worth the cost of importing a small number of mass murderers. They must make the case that the human toll in America is the price we must pay for national compassion. Of course, no Democrat wants a terrorist attack to occur, but Democrats must understand and acknowledge that under present policies, such attacks will occur – despite our best efforts to stop them.”

That compassion is more important than security is an argument I’m not comfortable making because that feels like conceding that, somehow, these are antithetical – it is to concede somewhere that letting in these immigrants is more of a security threat than any other immigrants.

I could argue instead, then, that compassion is more important than fear. I could appeal to romanticism of hope, of love and compassion – contrast how these open you up while fear constricts you: It makes you smaller, meaner.

But I don’t think that is what the writer means in comparing compassion and security. It is the difference in scope between these two terms that first made me think about this, and I haven’t been able to stop since. Because I think the real question here is: Should we respond to this on a personal level, or on a political level?

Of course, I’m a left-leaning, “special snowflake” liberal, so it is natural for me to see this question on a personal level – maybe because I’m so used to the politics of identity.

But to others, this ban is completely natural, because it is completely within the president’s rights. And the fact is that it very well may be. Although the ACLU is arguing that the ban, in fact, violates two amendments, the overarching argument is that the Unites States of America is allowed to treat aliens whichever way it wants – it always has. The rights the country considers essential to its citizens are confined to its borders – and aliens do not fall under that category by definition. Except when it benefits America to bring these rights to other countries, that is.

Anyway, America is a sovereign country, with a duty to itself first, and securing its borders – by whatever means necessary – is its right. That is not controversial. Obama said it. So did Bill Clinton.

So I will reframe French’s argument: If Democrats want to make their case, they need to tell us why this is personal and not political. Why this is about people and not about sovereign states.

I want to make that case, but I realized a few paragraphs in, that of course I would – I’m not American. I’m here because America offers the best education, and I’m here because America likes to take in students, likes for us to come in and do research and write papers. Or I’m here because I grew up knowing everything about America, because American influence is everywhere (just as it intends). Or I’m here because America likes to be the best at everything, and that means it will accept you if you can add to their pie.

Stanford sent us a letter – and I was hesitant to say this, because I didn’t want to nitpick, but then I realized that it’s not a criticism, but simply a fact — that said we cannot support a ban because we have a tradition of accepting the best minds, and we will suffer and fall behind the world if we don’t. That’s the rhetoric behind the arguments of what Google would look like without immigrants – about who built America’s railroads. That America needs immigrants to continue enjoying our position at the top of the world.

And it hurt because it meant this support of you, of all immigrants, is not personal. America did not welcome you as a person; this is about what you can bring to our nation. That is not wrong – it is not even something that was ever hidden from plain view, and yet it hurts.

And it hurts me but I know it is effective, because we are thinking of politics and the state, and how best to convince people that this is good for them. But what about those who don’t bring in diplomas or resumes or inventions? What about those who need a home and are asking America to open its arms to them? Why should they receive compassion when all we have to offer immigrants, it seems, are jobs and a quid pro quo relation?

My answer to French is convoluted, and perhaps doesn’t answer his question at all. But it is that your greatest gift is that, in your honest conversation about immigration, you can skip over what the opposite of compassion is. That your greatest gift is that you can afford to not be compassionate. That you can sit in America, and while your country in engaged in conflict abroad, you can ignore the question of those made homeless by that violence.

Because if there is someone at my door, I cannot turn away. It is the distance that makes us forget that these are real people – and it is forgetting that makes us callous.

And maybe here I am being indulgent because I am not American – I am Indian, and who am I to demand anything of Americans or America?

I was scared of writing this, of being asked that. But I had to, because this is more than political – it is personal. I cannot be indifferent. And yes, that is bias. But is also strength, because I don’t think this question should just be political.

Because our politics give us the shield of distance, of separation between ethics and policies.  

Because if this question for you is entirely political in the traditional, liberal, democratic way of separating the particular and the general, then it is not your problem, and we will stop there. But if it is ethical, then it is our problem. It has to be. And then you have to explain why you are turning these people away, and how anyone can justify turning away refugees made homeless by a proxy war fought in your name.

Sovereignty doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t resolve anything. It is not the end of the discussion. It cannot be a mask – we can’t hide behind politics.

I feel afraid to even engage with French because it feels like admitting that there is a link between normal people who happen to be Muslim and terrorism. I’m so afraid of reinforcing that connection that I hesitated to even put the words “Muslim” and “terrorism” in the same sentence.

But I continue because he asks this question: Is compassion more important than security? And my answer is yes. My answer – a hundred times over – is yes. Because our ethics matter in our politics. And it is our job to never forget that – to never let that slip out in between all this rhetoric. It is our job to reduce the scope of arguments that invoke security, and to pause to think. I don’t mean thinking logically or thinking cleverly – I do not even mean anything about thinking about real facts.

I simply mean that we should give this thought. And what does that entail? Simply that we should give it time and care and attention – because this is about real people. We need to bring ourselves to care enough to grapple in a real way with what it means to say that someone cannot come into this country – what that means to those who are already here, those who dream of a better life. What it means to say they don’t deserve our care because an accident of birth put them in that country and you in this one.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’

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