Refugees and Conflicts Are Our Problem

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?

A Syrian refugee child I met in Turkey. What will the future hold for her and her family?

A Syrian refugee child I met in Turkey. What will the future hold for her and her family?

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.

53 thoughts on “Refugees and Conflicts Are Our Problem

  1. Amazing, thank you. This is spot on, for sure. With all of the distance people put between themselves and the stories of horror and desperation we see, I often wonder if no one else is clenched when they see these things. It’s complicated, frustrating and nerve wracking, but sitting on our hands isn’t helping to untie the knot. Excellent piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I commend your compassion and your emotionally charged call-to-action. And while I agree that change often requires action, it is also the compulsion to act and speak, as opposed to listen that leads to war and conflict. I live in Israel, but because I live in the North where (for now) we avoid the constant barrage of rockets and sirens, and because my own small chilren may sleep at night and not be woken up by their parents who in understandable panic have to carry them to safe rooms, I am i a position to read your post and listen to your point of view. It is this listening that transforms me into the compassionate person that I am. It is this listening that propels me to see multiple sides of a conflict. It is my mindfulness that quells my very human instinct to react and act instead of listening and feeling. I suggest that this is just as important if not more important than action.

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    • Perhaps wisdom is exhibited and gained in learning which to do at which time…
      I think that we have learned DOOOO SOMETHING, just like BUY THIS BETTER NEWER FANCIER RICH EXUDING CAR. If we continue the pavlovian response, the persons making money from war and from conflict will continue as it is one of the best ways to make money.

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on Phil Alban and commented:
    Said as I wished to say it. I hope you’ll read, and like the original post.

    If the US is truly going to stand for “truth” and “right” then we should stop supporting those who don’t.

    Like

  4. I’m on a blogging hiatus until September, but I had to comment on this post – absolutely outstanding, Kristen and encapsulating exactly what is missing in our national conversation – compassion and integrity. Our policies, rhetoric, military strategy and diplomatic efforts say more about us than about whether the other side is wrong. This is true from a personal to a global perspective. What kind of person/people do we want to be?

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  5. I fully agree with what you wrote. It’s a shame that a lot of my fellow Americans either don’t know or don’t care about the plight of refugees and people living under severe circumstances. Thanks for setting these thoughts down on paper (or html, or whatever.)

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  6. The “illegal” child migrants /refugees flowing into the U.S. are being used as pawns. That said, they are children and when a bunch of U.S. adults scream at them to go away or clearly in their face tell them, they are wanted: people have to ask themselves…treat the children better. Otherwise there will be long term consequences for some of those kids.

    They are like your kids: their egos /self-respect don’t deserve to be bullied …because they are genuinely innocent. It’s the adults who are using them.

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  7. The world has become desensitised and unfeeling with the war hawks and blood hounds baying for innocent blood. Savagery, ruthless killing of women and children is certainly NOT a metaphor of sophisticated civilisations. Where is the voice of SANITY, PEACE AND HUMANISM?

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  8. Excellent. The Prince of Peace, Our Lord Jesus Christ, did not bless us by taking from others, but in order to give to others. The Beatitudes people, look them up and live them. For a point of clarity on this: Blessed are the poor in spirit does not mean those bereft of spirituality, but blessed are those who love the poor. How do I know, because He, Jesus, further said, blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be yours.

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  9. Excellent post. It is about time we stopped just sitting around and started actively doing something to fix the problem. I’m glad you’ve been the one to finally get it out and say these things that very much need to be said.

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  10. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I feel very similarly and am astounded that people can somehow explain away the untold death and suffering that is going on in the world by simply bandying around the word ‘terrorist’ as if that seems to excuse massacres, oppression and crimes against humanity. Many of us protesting against Israeli aggression are doing so for the very reasons you outlined, that we live in an interconnected world, and in fact a vast majority of the crises we are witnessing today are born from the empire and the centuries of colonialism that disrupted vast swathes of the world in state formation. Plus, regardless of creed, colour, religion, we are all human, and so how we explain away others suffering, is beyond me. Stanley Cohen, a professor of sociology at the London school of Economics wrote a fascinating book called States of Denial in which he documents the processes in which people deal with atrocities and suffering. Unfortunately, the majority of people are not pushed to action. I only wished he had lived long enough to then write a book on how to deal with unwelcome truths. If you have a moment, I would be grateful for your thoughts on the piece I wrote yesterday. http://anactivistabroad.com/2014/07/20/repoliticizing-as-the-bombs-drop-on-gaza/

    Keep up the great analysis.

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  11. Yours is a good post. However, in the Gaza massacre, I hesitate that the killing of innocents isn’t the real goal of Israel IDF, but the way to terrify Palestinian people and make them to leave their land. Perhaps this kind of news aren’t published in your country, but Ayelet Shaked, member of the Knesset, has called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers before they give birth little snakes.

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  12. Reblogged this on Evolving and commented:
    Read this post. This person is expressing compassion and why it matters. It is important. These are man made crisis. There are man made solutions – and killing is NOT the answer.

    Like

  13. Reblogged this on erinaleen and commented:
    Thoughtful comments from Kristen L. Rouse who spent 31 months in the U.S. Army stationed in Afghanistan — a reminder that those who are casualties of the world’s conflicts are in fact real people, with the same right to live in peace as you or I.

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  14. Reblogged on erinaleen. Well said. Thank you for reminding me that we are talking about real men, women and children when we discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the conflict in Syria or the issue of Mexican children fleeing to the U.S. Also for focusing on compassion, which is much needed.

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  15. This is a great read, and full of pertinent points that are far more important than winning or losing a war. Innocent human life is too precious to waste in waging political games.

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  16. Such a brilliant article !!! You’ve really made me question the true purpose of my being and provoked a thought of what I should be doing to define “who I am”. Very compelling.

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  17. One thing that really gets me mad are mainstream media anchors who gloat over images of advanced weaponry and call civilian casualties collateral damage or human shields. Netanyahu described them as telegenicaly dead, bizarre even for him. We allow misfits like Hannity from Fox to control the narrative. compassion doesn’t enter their heads and it’s compassion coupled with a grassroots campaign to effect change that might make the difference.

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  18. Thank you for a great post. I agree, we need to focus on “basic human compassion for the suffering of others”. The innocents suffering should not have continue paying the price for a war that is not theirs. I also agree that man-made situations can be un-made by man. Eventually.

    I only wish I could be half as articulate as you have been on this issue! Well done.

    Like

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