The last week’s news cycle has included crises of breathtaking magnitude: Congress has contended with the influx of tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, while the world has watched as Israel has pounded Gaza with missiles, killing Hamas militants, but also dozens of women, children, and other bystanders. Yet the responses I’ve seen in the mass media and on social media has been overwhelmingly about the “rightness” of Israel to destroy sites that have included a mosque, a center for the disabled, and a cafe where people were watching the World Cup; also, about the “illegality” of children fleeing the extreme violence and poverty of their home countries, and how expensive it is to feed, house, and otherwise help children in crisis–and so we talk about rapid deportations, not resolution or care. Hamas isn’t relenting, so people seem to feel that the murder of innocents is somehow justified, or possibly even entertainment to be had while sitting in beach chairs atop a hill. We’d prefer for Central American countries somehow get themselves together, despite persistent American appetites for the illicit drugs that fuel violence and conflict in those places, and American trade policies that contribute to the severe poverty of our neighbors, so we feel comfortable turning our backs–or our hatred–against those who come across our border in a desperate attempt to improve their lives.
My question is this: where is our compassion?
This isn’t about whether Israel has the right to exist and defend itself against enemies like Hamas, or the integrity of the U.S. border and our sovereign right to regulate immigration; what I’m talking about here is basic human compassion for the suffering of others. Among the militants in Gaza are countless innocents, and after a week of attacks, tens of thousands of people are fleeing the only homes they know. Families and communities in Central America are so desperate for their children to survive the dire situations surrounding them that they’ve sent them unaccompanied into the U.S.–a true act of desperation, given the extreme perils of crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. This year there are an estimated 50,000,000 refugees worldwide–an all-time high number that surpasses even the catastrophes of World War II–and that also doesn’t include people internally displaced within the borders of their own home countries. We have a global problem, and one that is urgent not only for the lives of the innocents involved, but also for the rest of us. It is undoubtedly an ominous sign of political instability and conflicts that will inevitably grow from that instability if we choose to ignore the crisis or make it worse.
This is a blog post, and not a polemic. I am not arguing policy points here. What I want to point out is that our seeming lack of compassion is not simply a moral problem–it is indicative of an even more serious problem that ultimately jeopardizes our own national security. Here are a few thoughts that come to my mind as I say this:
1. Disproportionate Violence Strengthens Insurgent Causes. I’ve seen at closer range than I’ve wanted to that a militarily weaker adversary uses extreme tactics, to include using human shields. But the reason why they use extreme tactics is that they work. Baiting a large military machine to destroy soft targets like houses of worship, hospitals, and schools causes catastrophic deaths and injuries to the most vulnerable innocents–and, in addition to the horrific impacts on real people with real blood–this becomes a legitimate rallying point against that larger military machine as inhuman, immoral, and unspeakably brutal. This is a horrific but winning tactic. And it is imperative that if the stronger military wishes to win, it simply cannot not take the bait. There is no tactical advantage–or moral advantage–to killing innocents. Ever. If innocents are killed in a strike, amends must be made, and promptly, and with sincerity and grief. These are people–people who deserved better than what happened to them. Until we realize this, these conflicts will only escalate into increased advantage and strength for the very insurgents we seek to defeat.
2. Displacement of Populations Deepens Crises and Causes Long-Term Consequences. Boys and young men who grow up in refugee camps and in hopeless, jobless situations are ripe for recruitment (or conscription) into insurgent armies. Lack of education, lack of rootedness in a homeland, lack of jobs, lack of economic opportunity (and related: lack of prospects for marriage), and brainwashing into extremist ideology and religion are the stuff that terrorist movements are made of. I’ve written about this before (both here and here), but I will say this again: refugee crises breed conflict. A crisis may seem far away and not our problem, but isolationist thinking helps no one–it doesn’t help you in your neighborhood at home, and it serves us even less in our global neighborhood. The refugee crisis we ignore today in that faraway place–or even coming across our borders today–will most certainly become our problem tomorrow.
3. Inaction is an Action. In our increasingly interconnected world, we do not have a choice between acting or not acting; a cascade of consequences–and costs–comes from inaction as well as any choice of actions. Either America leads in the world–with a voice, by fostering dialogue and working to de-escalate conflicts and disputes, by infusing values and right action into our policies and diplomacy with our global neighbors–or another country will fill the void. Isolationism may be tempting, and may sound great when it’s packaged in homespun words from a pundit or politician, but it is by far the most dangerous option we can choose.
4. Moral Authority Matters. When we say we’re a society based on values, beliefs, and faith, then we speak and act as if some lives are worth more than others–or some children are worth more than others–then we lose the high ground, both morally and tactically. In a world saturated by media images and Twitter, moral authority matters as much, if not more, than military might alone. How do we project our values in the world without appearing hypocritical? Promoting freedom, democracy, self-determination, entrepreneurship, and an ethic of hard work are all great things. But unless these values are coupled with the universal human language of compassion, generosity, fairness, hospitality, and sincere kindness–the effort may be lost, or even become toxic or inflammatory. Strength and might must come from morality as much as from technology and wealth.
Conflicts and refugee crises are man-made, and so it is completely within our reach to work with others toward equally man-made solutions. My overarching thought is this: are we the kind of people who sit in safety and watch the suffering of others, saying, “Why don’t we just nuke them?” Or are we the kind of people who are willing to recognize our own resourced position in the world and say instead, “How can we help find the right solution?” Because all of this is ultimately not about who Hamas is, or ISIS, or the Taliban, or who Central American drug cartels are, or how atrocious they are, or how wrong they are. It is ultimately about who we are as a people and a nation, and what moral substance we’re made of. This is what will define our future, and the future of the world we live in.
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