Call me a heartless bastard, but images of dead Syrian children washing up on beaches should have absolutely nothing to do with American foreign policy, refugee quotas, or immigration schemes. Photo-based emotionalism is no way to conduct the affairs of nations. That way madness—and all too often, even more carnage—lies.
It’s one thing when highly charged images speak to pressing domestic concerns whose solutions are clear and within a single country’s ability to effect. In late 18th-century England, for instance, Thomas Clarkson’s illustration of slaves wedged into a ship’s hold like barrels of rum helped jump-start Britain’s abolitionist movement. Footage from Bull Connor’s Birmingham and Vietnam electrified the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. In such cases, the solutions were self-evident (if difficult to achieve): Stop your own countrymen from perpetuating evil. Nothing is so simple when it comes to wars and catastrophes in which you are not even a direct participant.
It’s less simple when it comes to wars and catastrophes that we’re not directly involved in. And yet there’s John McCain on the Senate floor, propping up a picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi face down on a Turkish beach, calling for airstrikes and a new “get tougher” policy on the Assad regime, ISIS, Iran, Iraq insurgents, and more. McCain and too many Americans don’t understand that poorly thought-through, largely emotional responses are a major contributing factor to our ruinous footprint in so much of the world.
Indeed, how many times do we have to sit through this low-budget horror movie? Only a year ago, the sight of two American freelance journalists being beheaded by ISIS flipped public opinion almost immediately in favor of going back militarily into the Middle East.
Once those videos had been released, ISIS, a group with perhaps zero ability to wreak serious havoc on America, suddenly became an “existential” threat to our very way of life. (And this, of course, was exactly the reaction ISIS was counting on.)
Hawks have used the rise of the terror group to justify bombing runs and beefing up troop strength in the very country we’d just finally left after achieving nothing but death and destruction. But surely it should give the warmongers pause that, as The Daily Beast has reported, government security analysts are complaining that their assessments of ISIS were cooked to define the terror group’s success downward. If the government can’t be trusted in these cases, who the hell are we supposed to believe?
Before that, Barack Obama whipped up images of potential genocide and ethnic cleansing as a rationale for an air war against Muammar Qaddafi. That campaign plunged Libya into utter chaos and created a battleground where “terrorists [are] terrorizing other terrorists.”
There’s no question that the images streaming out of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and central Europe are nauseating and nightmare-inducing. Nobody who looks at pictures of dead kids washed up on Turkish beaches is unmoved by the sight. No parent—or child—can sleep well after seeing kids dressed for a day of play lying face down in the surf. The site of a Hungarian “journalist” tripping refugees fleeing police is every bit as disturbing in its own way.
And there’s no question that U.S. refugee policy is inadequate, despite our being the single-largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians. Over 7 million Syrians have been displaced by civil war and terrorism since 2011 and in just the past few years, 4 million refugees have flooded into neighboring countries.
The U.S. has accepted just a little over 1,000 Syrians to date, though President Obama has just directed the State Department to up the figure to 10,000 and there are reports it may go as high as 100,000.
But even that highest number hardly makes us the morally pure Shining City on a Hill that we ritualistically lay claim to being. As a matter of standing policy—meaning a policy that has been rigorously shaped and sold to the American people, who understand and sign off on its merits as a matter of cultural identity—the United States should always be open to refugees from the world’s worst hellholes. That way, when the calls come to open our ports—and our wallets—to succor the wretched of the earth, we won’t be reduced to defaming innocents whose only sin was to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Similarly, we should have an immigration policy that is settled and understood so that the statistically rare murder by an illegal immigrant doesn’t become demagogic fodder for nativists and presidential candidates. Seventy percent of Americans support a path to legalization for illegals and maintaining or increasing current levels of immigration, attitudes that are rarely present in political discussions of the topic.
And finally—and perhaps most importantly because of our ability to rain down bombs from on high, send our youth to spill their blood, and participate in the deaths of millions—we should have a foreign policy that is clearly articulated, “consistent with a free society and aimed at securing America’s interests in the world.”
That way, when the heart-rending and blood-boiling images wash up on our newsfeeds like so many Syrian babies on a beach, we’ll be in a far better position to take righteous and effective action. And we’ll also lower the odds that such catastrophes would befall the world in the first place.