The crisis in Europe and the empathy deficit at home

Build a wall? We should be flinging open the gates!

September 24, 2015 02:33
3 minute read.
Syrian and Afghan refugees struggle to stay afloat after their dinghy collapses

Syrian and Afghan refugees struggle to stay afloat after their dinghy collapses just off the coast of Greece. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Recently, many Americans picked up their newspapers to drink in a photo of a soldier retrieving the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old.

Aylan drowned when his refugee family tried crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece and their raft capsized. As Syrians, they was fleeing from the bombs, machine gun fire, and massacres in their homeland, trying to find an island of peace. Like many others, the only peace that Aylan found was the peace of death, the peace of annihilation.

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In her Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that close-ups of suffering might wrench guts but they don’t open our hearts. I hope she is wrong. I hope the photo of Aylan will knock some sense – some empathy into us. Who knows? Europe is experiencing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II. In the meantime and just when we need to open the flood gates, many politicos can only huff and puff about building giant walls and sealing the borders to their nation of immigrants! This week, during the three-hour Republican presidential debate, there were many fusillades aimed at firing up the base about sealing the borders, deporting undocumented workers and perhaps amending the 14th Amendment, but nary a word about how we might help with the human catastrophe taking place across the pond.

We should be doing more, much more. After all, we’ve done much more before. We brought 200,000 refugees into the US after the end of the Vietnam war. So far, we have opened the door to a piddling 700 Syrians, in contrast to Germany, which has pledged to admit 35,000 refugees this year and as many as 800,000 overall. Right now, even if you were an American who wanted to pitch in and help, it is impossible to sponsor a family from Syria because it would take at least two or three years to get them through the immigration process.

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) have been trying to ring the moral alarm.

Leading a group of 14 senators, they wrote to President Barack Obama, saying, “Our nation’s founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution and the United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees. The United States traditionally accepts at least 50 percent of resettlement cases from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. While the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, we must also dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement.”

Obama has responded by saying that he hopes to resettle 10,000 refugees in the US in the next year. Given the scale of the crisis that is a modest improvement, but one that has many xenophobic Americans up in a dudgeon.

Of course, some will contend that what is happening in Turkey, Greece, Hungary and Germany is not our problem.

After all, we didn’t light the flames of war! Did we? We are a people who like to prattle about the importance of “taking responsibility.” Let’s be clear, we bear a good deal of responsibility for the hoards of refugees.

Just as many predicted, our invasion of Iraq destabilized the Middle East. The bombs in Baghdad and the harrowing machine of Abu Ghraib blossomed into Islamic State and inflamed the civil war in Syria.

And yet instead of the American public being galvanized to pitch in and help with the disaster, we click our channels to kingdom numb and groan about all the “illegals” in the US.

Of course, most of the tattered souls with their sack of belongings and sick toddlers in tow are mid-easterners and Americans are frightened pale by specter of terrorism.

But since when did fear become a reason not to do the right thing? The Good Samaritan would not have been the Good Samaritan if he had held back from helping the stranger, rationalizing, “I would have liked to have helped the victim of that robbery, but I had every reason to fear that I too might be attacked... and besides it wasn’t really my fault that he was jumped.”

Again, let’s at least be honest. If we wish to sit on our hands and ignore the swamp of suffering seeping across Europe, then we should at least change our self-image.

We should admit that we are not the kind and generous folks whom we pretend to see in the mirror, but a hard hearted people suffering from an empathy deficit.

The writer is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College.

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