Freedom, Bravery, and Syrian Refugees

The Paris attacks have sparked a significant debate in the US about how to handle Syrian refugees seeking to immigrate. Several governors have declared that they will not allow the refugees into their states.

Esquire magazine published author and retired US Marine Phil Klay's thoughts on the subject. This is the part that struck me—

I get that people are scared. But it's only during frightening times that you get to find out if your country deserves to be called the 'home of the brave.' 

I agree with Klay. If fact, I think Klay doesn't take the point far enough. The US national anthem doesn't just call our country the "home of the brave"; it also calls the US the "land of the free." I would suggest that those two titles aren't just interrelated, but interdependent. Bravery is the prerequisite to freedom.

With apologies to the original author, I would like to repurpose an ancient bit of literature to make the point—Jesus Christ's Parable of the Good Samaritan (ignore any religious implications for the moment; the parable is a literary gem). The story, as originally told, illustrates the world's need for compassion that overcomes all barriers; but I think we could rename it the Parable of the Brave Man and the Cowards to teach another point.

In the story, a man traveling the road to Jericho "fell among thieves," gets beaten up, and lays nearly dead in the road. Several people come by, but no one helps the man. Why not? The parable's author doesn't give a reason. Racial or cultural animus? (The Israelites and Samaritans hated each other). Not wanting to get mixed up in someone else's problems? Too busy? All are possible reasons, but I think the author didn't specify any one reason to make a point—whatever justification we might favor, there really aren't any reasons good enough to justify refusing to help another in need when we can.

For the moment, let's assume that at least some of them might have been afraid that, had they stopped to help, they feared that they might also be attacked. (The road to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, which is probably why Jesus chose it as the setting for the parable). Only the hated Samaritan is brave enough to risk an attack by stopping to help and save the victim's life. Those who didn't help let fear dictate their choice, and that fear really only gave them a single choice—to run. Only the Samaritan's courage, fueled by his compassion, opened up options for him the others couldn't enjoy.

Fear is reactive. Fearful people let threats (real or imaginary) dictate their choices, and fear only allows for two responses—fight or flight. In the case of the admitting Syrian refugees into the US, "flight" amounts to throwing up barriers to stop downtrodden people seeking safety. Courage, on the other hand, allows us to consider other selfless, compassionate options. Yes, terrorists could take advantage of that to kill some Americans, but the truth is that the US government can't protect all its citizens everywhere at all times from all forms of attack anyway. It's a logistical impossibility. So I'd rather see us remain a compassionate country, willing to risk pain to help others, than see us selfishly push away desperate people in a mad chase for the unachievable chimera of perfect security.

"The land of the free" won't be free if it doesn't remain the "home of the brave." The fearful really aren't in control of their own choices or destiny. Yes, we should be careful and take wise precautions, but let's not allow fear to dictate our security policies and deny us the chance to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for people who've been far less fortunate than we've been.