Monday, 16 November 2015

On Refugees and Security

     So, I'm hearing from people who are concerned about our new federal government's plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. They say they want to help, of course, but they're worried that maybe some terrorists might sneak in disguised as refugees, so they want there to be very careful, very thorough screening.
     This sounds very reasonable, and it is so long as the screening is cost-effective. But how much screening is cost-effective? I'm going to suggest, with the following analogy, that the answer is not very much.

      Imagine you are relaxing in a hot tub, and a child proposes to drop a piece of ice in there with you to watch it melt. Sure, that'll cool down the water a bit, and you might prefer to keep it hotter, but you're willing to endure the modest temperature change which you probably won't even notice, since it'll make the child happy and you want to encourage her to do harmless little experiments like this anyway.
     But wait. Where did she get this block of ice, you ask? And she explains that she broke it from the frozen surface of a puddle in the front yard.
     Eewwww! That puddle in the front yard? It's all muddy and gross, and almost certainly full of germs and bacteria and pesticides and everything else! You don't want that in the hot tub with you!

     Now stop and think for a moment. What kind of germs and bacteria and unwanted chemicals are already in the hot tub with you? If you're at all realistic, you'll know that water you're soaking in is far from sterile. It's teeming with nastiness, kept in check of course by the high temperature and whatever chemicals you might use in your hot tub to keep microbe populations down. And while there might well be dog poop and other residues in the little piece of ice, it's certainly not worse than what's already in the tub, and your filter and chemicals can handle it in any event. Moreover, since the skin of ice came from the top of the puddle, it probably doesn't have any of the nasty sediments at the bottom of the puddle; odds are, it's actually purer water than what you're already sitting in.

     So this is analogous to the situation with Syrian refugees. We warm-hearted Canadians might be willing to sacrifice a little short-term comfort to help the needy, just as we'd be willing to let the water in the hot tub get just a little cooler as the ice melts. But we seem to be irrationally terrified that there might be dangerous people who want to hurt us among those we let in.
    Of course there's a possibility that some terrorists might sneak in along with refugees. But we need to consider whether that actually has any real impact on our safety, and I want to argue that it doesn't really. See, Canada is a nation of some 36 million people, and we have our share of dangerous people right here. We have serial killers and criminal gangs and angry young men with guns, and even a few would-be jihadists, just like any other country. Just like your hot tub is already full of pathogens and other icky stuff. And just like your hot tub has a system of filters and chemicals in place to deal with a certain amount of infectious goo, so too does our country have a robust system of law enforcement and security, to deal with the dangerous people who already live here.
     Moreover, just like the ice from the puddle is already quite a bit purer than the rest of the puddle, refugees are generally people who are fleeing the fighting; most of those DAESh thugs are too busy fighting to hang onto the territory they seized to be able to spare a lot of people to carry out terrorist operations elsewhere. They might send a few, but almost certainly not enough to make the 25,000 refugees statistically more dangerous to Canada than any other random bunch of 25,000 Canadians.

     There is a difference, of course. Unlike the pollutants in a mud puddle, DAESh might make deliberate, conscious attempts to exploit any perceived security lapses in our refugee process. And in fact, I actually expect them to do so. I don't expect them to pose any statistically significant danger, but I am confident they'll try to carry out some attack or other, and they'll likely go out of their way to let us know how they got into the country, because after all, their objective is to make us in the West hate and fear all Muslims, forcing all Muslims to throw their lot in with DAESh. And that, of course, is another reason why we should welcome Syrian refugees with open arms: because doing so will foil DAESh's plans.

     I'm not going to say that welcoming refugees will keep us safe. We're already in danger, and we always have been, and so keeping refugees out won't make us any safer. And DAESh really doesn't want us to mess up their narrative of evil infidels persecuting pious Muslims, so yeah, there's actually a pretty good chance they will try to attack us, especially if we do take in more refugees. But here's the thing: We're tougher than they are.
     I don't mean we can hit them harder than they can hit us, although of course we can; modern nation states like Canada with conventionally trained and equipped militaries are infinitely more powerful than a bunch of religious fanatics with Kalashnikovs. I mean we can survive anything they throw at us, and shrug. If they kill a hundred of us, or a thousand of us, we'll be upset and sad and angry, but you know what? So will all the people they're trying to recruit to their side.

     We're going to suffer more tragedies. Be ready for it, but don't think you can prevent it by giving in to hate and fear. Courage and compassion are how we will win.

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