Winston Churchill once said that the societies that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Citing the spirit of Winston Churchill’s words, political commenters have turned the Syrian refugee crisis into a political football that is being tossed to and fro, pointing to some of the humanitarian errors of Churchill's day - The Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans. Advocates for accepting Syrian refugees into America argue that America is repeating its nativist past while critics caution us to think a second time about our immigration roots. A veil of compassion and a competing self-righteous egoism doesn’t hide the hollow political peacocking on both sides that are rampant with inconsistencies that rule the debate. The debate about Syrian refugees is analogous to a heart that beats without a mind. There’s a medical term for that: vegetable.
The debate about Syrian refugees has been framed by the decision-making framework that led to the Japanese-American Internment and The Holocaust. One of the primary sources that sparked this narrative was Donald Trump. He suggested a database and tracking IDs for inbound Syrian refugees, which is similar to the U.S.’s program for the Japanese-Americans in WWII. The small-time Democratic mayor of Roanoke added that the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII is a solution to be seriously considered in light of our security concerns (he later apologized for his remarks after media backlash).
Then, a 1939 poll asking Americans whether they were in favor of allowing European Jews to resettle in America was re-published and went viral with the assertion that we were repeating mistakes we already learned. The poll showed a majority of Americans were opposed to the relocation of European Jews to America during the height of anti-semitism in Europe. Similarities were drawn from European Jews to the Syrian refugees by placing side-by-side photos from concentration camp victims. Now, throw the 2016 presidential candidates’ knee-jerk reactions to the refugee crisis into the mix and we’ve got a political football match.
Despite the emotion, these historic comparisons hold little weight. The inconsistencies among pundits and politicians should irk every American towards skepticism. Two-thirds of those interned during WWII were American citizens, not refugees. The wrongly interned Japanese were economically successful and integrated. It is well known that the American people were bent on isolation before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The terrible societal situation for Jews in Europe was known to the American people during the 1930s, but the Holocaust and the Final Solution were unknown until 1944-45. Unlike the Nazis, Islamic State (“ISIS”) is not built upon a “blood cult” of a mystical, fake race with a Semite enemy. ISIS is systematically destroying Syria and Iraq to build its own state. The terrorist organization is driven by militarized, absolutist religious supremacy. To fix a problem, you must know the genesis.
Some critics of Trump’s proposal for a tracking system designated for Muslims call it “racist” (despite Islam not being a race), but they once supported a similar system for preventing immigrants from overstaying their visas and called it “reasonable.” The civil liberty-minded who were disgusted at Trump’s idea of tracking and databases based on religious affiliation may need to brace themselves when they hear the government already has this information indirectly. Don’t mention the fact that the $200 billion gorilla in the room, Facebook, willingly displays your affiliation and tracks your movements via the computer in your pocket.
The inconsistencies don’t stop at a misunderstanding of WWII history.
Most advocates for the Syrian refugee relocation to the U.S. are, ironically, isolationists (at least when Bush Derangement Syndrome was still a thing) and desire a near-complete removal of US presence from the Middle East. To them, America gifts the world the Observer Effect—everything it touches, it harms. Now, it seems they have added an asterisk to their position: “unless, we don’t like your solution.”
In 2012, both the war in Syria and resultant refugees were issues discussed by Romney and Obama during the presidential debates. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Syrians had died and there wasn’t even a hint of care. Not to mention Al-Assad using chemical weapons, ISIS killing minorities on a whim, and ISIS posting videos to incite lone wolf terror attacks. The “little group” known as ISIS was a Middle East problem. If you suggested intervention, the immediate response was “quagmire” or “endless war”; then, we inserted the political posturing of the Right and the Left and the real war began.
Political point scoring was then, and again has now become important than solving a problem. We are quick to jump to either side of the aisle to debate, leaving those whom we “care” about stranded in the middle, wondering how this even pertains to them.
One side puffs itself as pro-military, freedom, NASCAR, bald eagles, and a direct lineage to George Washington. To them, every day is an episode of 24 and they are Jack Bauer defending America. The other side proclaims an individual moral code so pure and lofty that everyone with whom they disagree is to be hated and accused of whatever “ism” or “phobia” is in vogue. To them, why not embrace only 10,000 refugees? Therein lies the problem. Don’t ask about the 4 million other Syrians who don’t make the cut or the victims of Boko Haram or Quds Force or Hezbollah. To them, compassionate solutions are better than thoughtful ones.
In a technology-driven news cycle, it is easier to promote a simplistic solution that solves the emotional need over addressing the core problem. For Syrian refugees, instead of caring about their home, their heritage, and their country, we offer them the next best thing: a “better life” in the United States, where they can shop at Costco, drink Jamba Juice, and drive plush SUVs. Leave your home, your history, and your people and watch from afar as they are burned to a ground by a nihilistic Islamist evil. Remind me again: how do we veil our Facebook profile photo with the French Flag to show our fervent support?
If the analogies to Japanese-American internment or The Holocaust provide any valid reason for embracing Syrian refugees, then the historical metaphor should be brought to its ultimate conclusion - War. We invaded and occupied Japan and Germany. We didn’t just treat the symptoms or proposal with half-hearted solutions, we fought the Good War against evil. If that is your position, be fair in your recollection of history and orient your compassion towards doing good, instead of feeling good.
We should strive for intellectual honesty and consistency, rather than hide behind superficial gestures.