True Courage

The rabble-rousing around the recent violence in Paris has been frustrating to say the least. Not only is it embarrassing that terrorism gains our full attention only when major centers of western culture become victims, but the way that leaders are willing to use the heightened emotions around the event to push hateful and vitriolic agendas makes me lose a little more hope for humanity. I am no expert on these issues, but the variance in the “facts” that I continue to hear promulgated in news and analysis tells me that expertise is no prerequisite for proposing policy that affects millions. So, here’s my two cents for anyone who wants to listen.

Let us first recognize that the attacks in Paris are but one of the symptoms of the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism that currently threatens the world’s people. Its dramatic rise has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past few decades, and there are no signs that the trend will slow despite the vigorous attempts of Western powers. Fear is a perfectly reasonable reaction at each reminder that the jihad of ISIS, al Qaeda, and other violent organizations still rages.

At this point though, I want to introduce a concept that doesn’t seem to get much attention: courage. Though he was not the first to express the sentiment, Nelson Mandela put it poetically when he said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not the man who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” We usually associate courage with members of the armed forces and those who face violent conflict. We praise those who have put themselves or have been tossed unwillingly into harm’s way yet acted with bravery. Rarely, however, do we speak of the courage of the average citizen. I propose that courage is most important among those who do not face great danger, who will likely never experience violence and who lead the most comfortable of lives.

The current debate over what to do about the continued outpouring of refugees from the Middle East into Western nations is one of the most divisive I have ever seen. On the left are leaders like Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton who want to open borders to tens of thousands of refugees seeking safety in an uncertain world. On the right are leaders like Tony Abbot and Marco Rubio who wish to seal the borders for fear that one of those refugees could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Which camp you are in depends on how you answer one question: Is exposing yourself to a few violent extremists for the sake of helping thousands worth the risk?

Those on the right will insist that it is impossible to screen all the refugees to catch the small handful that would like to do their host country harm. They will remind us of the terrifying truth that the IRA first stated: “We only have to be lucky once – you have to be lucky always.” They will not let you forget that this is a war, and “they” want to hurt “us.”

The left will assure you that our systems can and will screen out the terrorists. They remind you that the refugees fleeing their homes are the true victims, and their survival depends on your compassion. They will not let you forget that history does not remember favorably the resistance to the exodus of Jews during the Holocaust.

Both camps are playing with your emotions. Of course, to get most people to do anything, emotion must be involved, but it is not our emotions that will determine our legacy; it is how we act in spite of them.

The fact is that terrorism will continue to plague world powers as long as world powers and powerful ideologies exist (which will probably be for the life of our species). Patriots in colonial America, the populist groups of the French Revolution, Filipino guerrillas during the insurrection, Polish partisans in WWII and the Black Panthers of the American civil rights movement were all terrorists by the standards of the establishments they opposed. History looks favorably on some and unfavorably on others, but they were all people who believed that violent resistance to oppression (real or perceived) was the best way to achieve their aims. The current threat may be more extreme, but it is not fundamentally different. Despite the continued claims that we can “win” this War on Terror, violence will persist. The fact is that innocent people in our developed societies will continue to be he victims of violence. Whether they be the victims of ideologically driven, coordinated and organized attacks or of individual efforts like those in Oklahoma City, Columbine and Newtown, citizens of even the safest countries will be murdered.

The reasonable gut reaction for most people is to take every step to prevent the violence. In fact, it’s something we absolutely should do. As an engineer, I’m all in favor of solving identified problems. However, engineers also take one key step in the problem-solving process: they define constraints. Engineers worry about physics – strength of materials, weight limits, fatigue – and our policy makers must identify constraints as well. Their constraints however are things like economics, logistics, and ethics. Up for debate are constraints defined by our ethics.

We in the “free world” hold dear certain “unalienable human rights,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Not only do we defend these rights for ourselves, but we defend them for all of humanity (or at least we claim to). The United States has operated expeditionary forces abroad under the banner of supporting liberty and democracy for decades. Since the recognition of the United States as a global superpower, it has almost constantly deployed forces abroad both in protection of American interests and in an attempt to support the democratic aims of people around the world. President Truman stated specifically, in what is now known as the Truman Doctrine, that the United States will stand by those who stand for democracy. We have been far from perfect in our endeavors, but the continued support for such sentiment tells us that Americans still want to see this value realized. Judging by European support in coalitions led by the US over the past few decades, I will wager that most Europeans feel the same.

Offering a helping hand exposes us to danger, but to make the fullest effort to stop every terrorist, we will blow through our constraints. Sure, we could detain people for the slightest suspicion of terrorist activity, we could seal our borders to those seeking asylum and we could bomb the Islamic world into submission, but all of those options would trample on the rights we exalt. Stepping up the War on Terror or cracking down on violence at home is not an option given the constraints.

If my assumptions are correct, there is a correct answer to the question what should we do about the refugees whose only options are death or oppression?: We must help them.

Logically, I could stop there and let my voice disappear into the masses on the left who pull at your heartstrings to get you to show compassion for these poor people, but my target here is not the choir who agrees with me. My target is those who stand on the illogical side of the issue.

If you support liberty and justice for all, you must support direct aid to Syrian refugees, whether it be in foreign support or domestic harboring of refugees. If you don’t, you are a coward.

Indeed, there will be those who slip through the screening process. Of course, there will extremists who find their way onto American and European soil. Without a doubt, some of these people will succeed in their aims, and some of you, people of the “free world,” will die a premature death. That should frighten you, but that fear gives you the opportunity to feel something that we tend to believe only the most special and noteworthy possess: courage.

In closing their “Freedom to Read Statement,” the American Library Association identified this important truth: “Liberty itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.” The freedom that Americans love so passionately opens us up to danger. The willingness to live with that danger to protect that freedom is the definition of courage. To open your borders and your arms to those who seek the liberty you have so proudly advertised even at the risk of endangering yourself is an act of bravery. You need not take up arms or stand firm in the face of oppression to show your courage; you need only to open the door when someone knocks.


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