It probably has not escaped anyone’s notice that I don’t usually write things in the face of terrible tragedies. With one or two exceptions, I usually don’t know what to say. I don’t know how other people survive in the world; I keep most of it at delicate, carefully-maintained distance. Any horror is capable of collapsing that distance, bespeaking not just itself but every horror, every agony in the unremitting misery of the world. I don’t have a good mechanism for feeling bad about only one thing at a time, I think. Somehow, in my imagination, every tragedy is chained together and to drag one loose is to pull all of them free.
When things like this happen I start to feel…”deliberate” I suppose is a word. Maybe this is a kind of vanity – in the face of external stresses I become introspective. Vanity is certainly something I am capable of. And maybe it’s a kind of cowardice – I look for, instead of some way to act, only the one way to act perfectly correctly, the opportune moment to do only the exact right thing. Sometimes the opportune moment never presents itself, and I do nothing, and so maybe this is a way of forgiving myself of the responsibility of action. Cowardice is certainly something I am capable of.
I don’t know.
A philosopher that I happen to like is Baruch Spinoza, and a quote that has felt especially pertinent to me lately is this one, from his Tractatus Politicus:
Peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character.
I suppose I’m interested in what that means, what it means that peace is not the absence of violence, but is instead a resistance to violence. That war is not an active condition but a passive one – a state of entropy that emerges on its own when the hard work of peace is abandoned. That it’s peace that is the real work, the difficult work, the challenging work.
I don’t know the answer to this, either. I don’t know how to win this war, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to know.
I do know that I want to do the right thing, and only the right thing, and I don’t know what that is or even what it looks like.
So. This is the letter I wrote to my congressmen. I encourage you to write to your congressmen, too.
After the tragedy in Paris, and similar tragedies in Beirut and throughout the world, it is very likely that the wisdom of accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees is going to be called into question. You will be tempted, I am sure, to point to you constituency and say that you have a responsibility to protect us, that our fear of terrorism is simply too great to permit the risk of accepting this or any people whose lives are riven by incalculable cruelty.
I am a member of your constituency. I have a good job, and pay my taxes. I have a wife and a child. I have a home here that I have worked hard to create and to maintain. It is not an easy life, but it is a fairly safe and stable one. I am precisely the sort of person who would not want to risk accepting refugees into my community.
That is why I want you to understand: I am not afraid.
I understand the risk. I understand that Daesh terrorists – the brutal, nihilistic sadists that the people of Syria are fleeing – might take advantage of our generosity and hide among them, ready to attack us when they perceive we are weak. I understand that, and I am not afraid of it.
I understand that the refugees who come here will have a different language, and a different culture, and often different values from me and my community. I know that my community will have to adapt itself. That it will be disrupted in order to make room for them, and disrupt itself even more to make them feel at home, and as safe and secure as I do now. I understand that, and I am not afraid of it.
I understand that my life may change, irrevocably. I understand that I might make myself a target for the same unimaginable cruelty that millions of people throughout the world face on a daily basis.
And I am not afraid.
Whatever else happens, I believe that the people of my community, of my state, and of my country are good, kind, generous people and that these virtues – virtues of generosity and hospitality, of compassion, and of the courage to exercise them – these are the essential virtues of our character. These are the virtues that we will not abandon, will not compromise, will not retreat from, not a step, not an inch, not the breadth of a hair. Not even in the face of Armageddon.
When the question of the wisdom of accepting refugees comes to you, I hope you will remember this. I hope you will remember what your constituents believe in, and what we stand for. I hope when you are asked “How many?” you will have the courage to answer “More.”
I am not afraid.
We are not afraid.
Whoever saves one life, saves the world.