Wednesday, November 18, 2015


For the last few days, the question of Syrian refugees has been at the center of much of the discourse in the US. There are a lot of emotional appeals on the subject, and some questions are being asked. However, there are some important questions that are not being discussed. We need a broader discussion if we are to really get anywhere in it. I have a few ideas here, and I am more than willing to consider others if I have missed something important.

The first question that needs answering is, "does the U.S. government have the right to intervene with regard to refugees from Syria?" To this, I would say no. Now, before you get all upset and call me all sorts of nasty names, I am not saying that the US citizen does not have the duty to intervene. There is a profound difference between these two. I am going to assume for argument's sake that we all agree that it is a good thing to do to help refugees. Does that mean that I can go to my neighbor and demand money at gunpoint to give to refugees? No. That is theft. If it is wrong for me to do as an individual, it is wrong for me to have the government do it on my behalf. It does not matter how good the cause is - if you are using the coercive force of the State to fund it, it is not charity, and it is not noble.

The second question is a bit trickier. "Does the U.S government have the right to intervene militarily in the current conflict in Syria/Iraq?" This is harder to know for sure. The government's duty is to provide for the common defense (of the U.S. only). How they do that is open to interpretation. There is little chance of the direct fighting being a risk to our national security. However, there is little question that members of the Islamic State or those acting on their behalf might commit acts of violence and murder here in the U.S. This is a question that should be discussed by Congress, and based on the results of their debate, they could decide to make a declaration of war against the Islamic State. (Unlike your "average" terrorist organization, ISIS has declared a government and holds territory. An actual declaration of war is possible.)

Now, we could get into a number of more nuanced questions about "refugee" versus "asylum seeker" or "internally displaced person." Based on international law, the term refugee is probably inaccurate. (For those wondering, here is a link to a website that discusses the differences.) This, however, would be a purely academic debate, and although interesting, it really is not important.

For our discussion, the specific status is not as important as the fact that thousands of people have fled violence, and this has created a humanitarian crisis. There are people who need help, and it is important to help them. Did you know that there are dozens of organizations that are doing just that - and I am confident that they would be very grateful for any additional funds that you would like to send them to further their work. If you do not know where to look, I have found a site with five pages of organizations providing humanitarian aid that includes a basic summary of the work that each one does. Look through it and find one or more that you can support. Check how the money that they receive is used. Get excited about the work that they do. Ask others for their voluntary assistance for a cause near and dear to your heart.

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