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.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sacrifices for Freedom

     My sister just forwarded me this link alerting me that today is "Love Your Lawyer Day", probably because she found out I'm a lawyer. I'm gratified, I suppose, but reading through the article I'm also a little disappointed that the rationale for the day seems to be entirely a reaction to cruel lawyer jokes and an awareness that lawyers have feelings too. And, as it also happens to be early November and everyone is wearing red poppies and waxing poetic about how much we owe our veterans, the contrast is a bit troubling.
     I hasten to stress that I am grateful for the courage and sacrifice of our veterans, and very much aware of how vitally important it is that they are willing and able to fight in defense of our civilization. But I am troubled by the apparently unlimited scope of the platitudes of gratitude we express, especially around November 11, in which people seem quite unrestrained in thanking men with guns for everything we have. For example, there is the story about VFW's Teacher of the Year Martha Cothren and the poignant lesson she taught her students about what earned them the right to sit in their desks, by having a group of veterans troop into the classroom, each carrying a desk.
     And certainly there have been instances where the willingness of soldiers to put themselves in harm's way has played a direct and visible role in letting children attend school. Consider, for example, when President Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to protect nine black students as they attended Little Rock Central High School, which had previously been reserved only for white children.
     But also consider that before Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, that very same unit had been sent by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent those same students from entering the building. The point here is that men with guns can be an instrument of oppression as well as defense against it. Indeed, I shouldn't need to mention that the primary use of violence throughout history has been in service of one form of oppression or another; those who resolve their disputes by reasoned negotiation and moral persuasion generally have little need for weapons, and then only because there are other people out there who do favour violence as their strategy.

     So it is not simply the fact that someone wears a uniform, carries a gun and follows orders that makes him or her a champion of freedom. It's that the gun is carried in service of freedom, or more to the point, in service of the form of government and the rule of law and the principles that support that freedom. And while the contribution of armed forced to protecting that freedom is very important, it is not the only contribution There are others who serve to protect our freedom as well, albeit in less dramatic and less appreciated ways.
     Remember that Eisenhower did not simply decide to send in troops because he wanted to see Arkansas schools desegregated as a matter of might-makes-right. This was not just a clash between the policies of the President and the Governor. It was a matter of law: a Federal Court had ruled that racially segregated school systems violated the Constitution. And that court had not simply decided that they thought it would be nice if children of all colours could attend schools together; it had been persuaded by legal arguments raised by lawyers.
     Now, it's true, of course, that there were lawyers on the other side, arguing that separate-but-equal segregated schools were constitutionally sound and that it was entirely appropriate that black students should not be allowed to set foot in all-white schools. But that does not mean that those lawyers were enemies of freedom. On the contrary, they played a fundamentally important role in protecting it. Our legal system is adversarial: the court must hear the very best arguments available for both sides of a claim, so that we can have confidence that the decisions they make are as fair and just as humanly possible. And that means that we need lawyers to be the bad guys as well as the good guys, in particular because in most cases that actually make it all the way to trial, there's actually an open question as to which is which.
     This means that there will always be lawyers arguing the very opposite of what you want to hear them saying, assuming you ever take sides on any issue. And this makes it hard to avoid coming to the opinion that lawyers are slimy dishonest shysters who will argue anything for anyone, so long as they get paid.
     But consider for a moment what it is we want from a soldier: we want them to be well-trained and highly disciplined, and in particular we want them to be able to promptly follow lawful orders even when those lawful orders require them to do something they might personally find distasteful. Like, for instance, shooting someone dead, or  blowing up a bunker with people inside it. These things may be tactically necessary, and in the big picture they may well be the least of all evils, but in the immediate situation, there's no getting around the fact that killing people is ugly, and something all decent people have a natural resistance to.
     We consider soldiers heroes for their ability to bravely do what we would consider abhorrent, and rightly so on both counts: they are heroes, and it is still abhorrent. So why do we feel comfortable condemning the lawyer who defends a pedophile, or who argues that black kids shouldn't be allowed to go to white schools? Why do we vilify lawyers with lawyer jokes?

     Sure, it's not the same as getting shot at. But neither is it the same as shooting at people. And just as soldiers willingly bear the risk of being shot, so too do lawyers knowingly enter a career and make arguments they know will make them unpopular.
     So I'm not complaining. I see it as an inevitable part of the process, of what lawyers do, that they will be regarded with suspicion and even contempt. The fact that many earn respectable salaries (and much more than what members of the armed forces typically earn) is probably more than enough to make up for this. I don't think we need a Love Your Lawyer Day, nice as the intention behind it is.
     But I do think we need to balance the hyperbole of thanks for veterans with a recognition that it's not just their willingness to fight that keeps us free, because I think the militaristic rhetoric is ultimately dangerous. The most egregious example I can think of is how some American gun proponents talk about the 2nd Amendment as the one that makes all the others possible, which is of course absolutely backwards, as I've argued before. More concretely, there is a strain of law-and-order ideology in which the police are very quick to use force to silence any perceived challenge to their authority, whether it be slamming a high school student to the floor for refusing to obey a command or arresting a driver for declining to put out her cigarette in her own car, or any of countless other examples. But these acts are not law; they are force.

     It is not force, then, but the law that keeps us free. Those who take up arms to meet force with force in service of law deserve our thanks, but so do lawyers, who work to apply and improve the law. But neither can do it alone: without our collective commitment to resolve our disputes in accordance with principles of civility and respect, their sacrifices would be for nothing.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

On "Allowing" Disrespect

     A quote from the Reverend Billy Graham has come across my news feed a couple of times now, and so I think it's time to deconstruct it, because I think it's wrong and misleading. Rev. Graham says:

A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.

     Why would I take issue with this? Obviously I think children ought to respect their parents, and obviously I agree that it's a good thing for children to have respect for other people, as well. These are certainly desirable things. But often when we read or hear something that seems to be about uncontroversial values we all share, we lapse into a kind of warm glowy agreement with it, and don't look closely enough to notice that what it's actually saying is, well, wrong.
      There are, after all, children who are born to disreputable and irresponsible parents, who still somehow manage to grow up into decent and respectful human beings despite (and sometimes as a reaction to) their awful role models.  It is entirely conceivable that such a child might not respect her parents at all, having been disappointed in them too many times to extend them the benefit of the doubt, and yet still have true respect for others. So the claim is empirically false, but it goes deeper than just the occasional exception-that-proves-the-rule.

      The real problem I have with this claim is that that's just not how respect works. Respect is not a behaviour but an attitude, a recognition that other people exist, that they have their own perspectives which we are not well-situated to judge, that they have their own concerns and interests, and most of all that they matter. Once one has that basic element of respect, all sorts of respectful behaviours just naturally emerge from it. When we respect each other, we will defer to each other's preferences and expertise, or at least take them into account. We will choose our words politely, so as to avoid giving offense, because respect means that a person's preference not to be offended matters to us.
     Now, what does it mean, then, to "allow" a child to be disrespectful to his parents? From my perspective, this is an almost meaningless question; how can you allow someone to have an attitude or belief about your inherent worth as a human being? Indeed, the very question is itself disrespectful, insofar as it disrespects the basic sovereignty of the child's own mind.
     What one can allow (or disallow) is behaviour, and yes, it's possible to demand politeness and deference, and to punish their absence. And by all means, as parents we certainly ought to attempt to teach our children how to behave politely, towards their parents as well as towards anyone else. A respectful attitude can emerge from this, as we model the practice of considering others. But if we are focused on demanding that our children show us polite deference as their parents, we might well end up modelling an authoritarian self-centeredness that undermines the foundations of true respect.

     And so I would say that, as superficially profound as the Rev. Graham's quote sounds, it's actually backwards. Teach your children what respect is, not by demanding it from them, but by modelling it for them. Demonstrate respect by showing it to everyone.
     You cannot make your children, or anyone else, respect you. What you can and should do is strive always to be worthy of that respect; whether you get it or not is not up to you. And if your children live by the same principle, you'll have done your job well.