Monday, February 13, 2017

Security, Good Will, and Ideologies of Division

In recent month I've found myself writing numerous lengthy reflections on our nation's current political climate and circumstances--and posting them publicly on Facebook rather than on my blog. The reasons for this are numerous, but the result is that this blog has been neglected. There is, however, an important point I wanted to make today, and as I was about to compose it on Facebook I decided it ought to go here instead.

Much of this blog is devoted to the Christian love ethic. I have argued that, based on an ethic of love, we should be willing to take risks. We should be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable on the Jericho road to help the injured victim in the ditch. We should be prepared to face our enemies with the kind of love that can turn them into friends, even though what might happen instead is that they strike us down.

But the point I want to make in this post is that even if our main aim is security, as opposed to living out a love ethic for its own sake, we need to take the sorts of risks that love demands.

The fact is that there are multiple ways to promote safety and security. One way is to keep threats out. Another way is to threaten decisive retaliation against those who do us harm. A third is to promote good will.

By "promote good will" I mean a few interrelated things. I mean interacting with others in a way that builds networks of friendship and mutual care. I mean doing the sorts of things that inspire gratitude. I also mean avoiding the kinds of things that magnify hostility and create enemies. I mean not deliberately provoking outrage.

Put simply, we're safer in a world of friends than in a world of enemies. One of the surest ways to create friends is to help people in their time of need. And one of the surest ways to create enemies is to assume that they are enemies and treat them accordingly.

The problem, of course, is this: to build friendships, I need to make myself vulnerable. If I refuse to make myself vulnerable, that means I am shutting people out in ways that they will likely experience as hostile.

If I engage those around me in a spirit of good will, those who are already my enemy may try to take advantage of that. They might pretend to be in need, and then when I make myself vulnerable by helping them, strike out against me. Reasonable concern for my own safety and security requires that I take sensible precautions against such things, especially if I know that I have enemies out there. But if I take extreme steps to prevent such things--if I try to make myself invulnerable to attack by shutting out anyone who might pose the slightest risk of being a threat--I help create a world in which I have fewer friends and more enemies. I create a world where I am in greater danger than I was before, because more of those around me wish me ill.

In other words, the more afraid I am of making myself vulnerable and the more I act on such fear, the more I will need to be afraid. Similarly, the more aggressive I am in relation to my neighbors--seeking to keep myself safe by issuing threats against them and retaliating with extreme prejudice when my threats aren't heeded--the more I find myself with no alternative but to be aggressive. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is true both at the individual level and at the group level. It is true of me with my neighbors, and it is true of America in relation to the wider world. We live in a world where America has enemies, those who wish to do us harm. But if we try to make ourselves immune to attack by shutting down our borders and adopting an aggressive posture, we become a nation with fewer friends and more enemies. The cost of an an "America First" nationalism that shuts down our borders and treats every desperate refugee as a potential terrorist is that we help to create a global environment in which more people wish us harm than before.

If we open our borders to, say, Iranian college students, what is going to happen? Of course, some extremist who wishes to violently attack Americans could try to come into the country on a student visa. But the vast majority who come to this country will do so in order to experience a new country and get an education. And guess what? If we let them in and don't treat them like enemies, if we invite them to dinner and to the movies and to a football game, if we give them a stellar education and inspire them to learn to sing the school's alma mater, we have planted seeds of good will that can help to overcome the seeds of hatred that are being sown by hate groups out there in the wider world.

ISIS and organizations like them are built on ideologies of division: us vs. them, the in-group vs. the out-group. Terrorists depend on a worldview in which "we" are at war with "them." Islamist extremists who target the West teach that Western nations are an enemy of Islam and that there is only one path for Muslims who want to flourish: destroy the enemy. This is the thinking that inspires Islamist terrorism.

Most Muslims don't buy it. Certainly, most of those who live in America today don't buy it. And our security depends on things staying that way. We become more secure if fewer people buy it, rather than more people buying it.

Right now, ISIS is helping to create a refugee crisis. Most of those desperate refugees are Muslims. The horrors of civil war and the violence of Islamist extremism are displacing them, and they are fleeing for their lives. ISIS claims that all of Islam is at war with West. If it's the West that provides succor to these Muslim refugees, that act of good will flies in the face of ISIS's ideology. If America provides a place of refuge and healing--not blindly, but through the kind of careful vetting process that's been in place for years--doing so helps expose ISIS's ideology as a lie.

But if we slam our borders shut, especially if we focus on singling out Muslims as a class for exclusion, we feed the ISIS ideology. We make their worldview more convincing. We help their recruitment efforts. In our of fear of letting a terrorist slip through the cracks of our vetting, we fuel the ideologies of division that inspire terrorism.

The alternative is not open borders. Just because I invite my neighbors over for dinner and show hospitality to those in need doesn't mean I take the locks off my doors. We must not fall for these sorts of false dilemmas. There are people out there who mean to do us harm, and we need to take sensible precautions. But our security depends as much on good will as it does on those precautions. And if we become so ruled by fear that we try to shut out everyone, our efforts at promoting security become self-defeating. We make our world more dangerous. We make ourselves less secure.

This isn't some obscure scholarly point. It's common sense. We are safer in a world with more friends and fewer enemies. Right now, there are ideologies of division that encourage Muslims to view Americans as enemies, and vice versa. If we feed those ideologies, we make our world more dangerous. If we fight those ideologies through showing Muslims that we are not their enemies, we make our world safer.

What is the effect of a sudden, unannounced slamming shut of our borders to a range of Muslim-majority countries--turning away scientists on their way to the the US to join cutting-edge research teams, turning away students about to begin Master's programs in philosophy and chemistry, turning away refugee families that after years of vetting have finally received approval to settle in America and have boarded a plane to their new lives? This act will cause hardship to those affected. It will deprive us of the good will that might have been generated by our generosity. It might deprive an American research team of a brilliant colleague and impede life-saving research.

It will probably not cause those scientists, students, and refugees to become terrorists. But it will send a broad symbolic message to the Muslim world: The US is anti-Muslim. And when the US sends that message, ISIS says, "Oh, goodie!" Because it means their ranks will grow. It means their worldview will become more plausible to more people. It means more people will be fueled by outrage against America to pursue the path of terrorist violence.

And no security system is foolproof. A security measure that reduces the likelihood of a determined terrorist getting into the country is not a good security bet if, in the long run, it substantially increases the number of terrorists who are trying to get in to do us harm.

Imagine that I found out that my door locks and dogs will only keep out 50% of determined burglars, whereas there is a new security system by Company X which would keep out 99% of them. But suppose that I am not really a target for burglars, let alone determined ones. In fact, the chances that a determined burglar will target my home in any given year is about one in a hundred. Now imagine that I find out that there is a team of burglars that keeps tabs on Company X's customers. They think anyone who installs the company's system has something really worth stealing. So were I to get the security system installed, my home would suddenly become the target of dozens of determined burglars every year.

Should I get the system installed? Obviously not.

Of course, the trade-offs we're dealing with when it comes to national security are not so stark or clear. But the point remains the same: sacrificing good will for the sake of greater security has costs--including a cost in terms of security. The safest world is one where ideologies of division are replaced by mutual understanding and respect across differences. Our aim should be to work towards such a world while taking sensible precautions against those in the grip of these ideologies. As soon as we decide to stop working towards such a world in favor of immunizing ourselves from any possible threat, we are pursuing an illusion: the illusion that we can achieve invulnerability.

Here's the grim truth: no matter what we do, we will be the victims of terrorism again. It will happen. The national security question is how best to reduce the frequency of such attacks. Throwing good will to the dogs is not the answer.


  1. A much too overlooked perspective. Thanks for your contribution to this very important debate.

  2. Thanks for this. Agree wholeheartedly. I fear that we're losing the ability to promote goodwill in this specific area because it appears to be too costly.

    To play devils advocate, how would you respond to this:

    "The very fact that those who oppose an all-out ban bring up the likelihood that a ban would actually increase terrorism in the future seems to prove the point - that there is an inherent problem with what we call 'terrorism' in the very essence of Islam that is just waiting to explode and which could awaken at any time or place."

    1. Mike H: Thanks for the question. My response was too long to fit into a comment, so I turned it into a post.