I'm sure I speak on behalf of a great many people when I say that the recent images of five-year-old Syrian Omran Daqneesh, sitting dazed and bloody in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building in Aleppo, is the single most heart-wrenching thing I have ever seen. Personally, I somehow find his ordeal even more disturbing than the last time my heartstrings were yanked this hard, which was when photos emerged last year of little Alan Kurdi's body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Alan's suffering is finished; Omran's has just begun.
In what has become the worst humanitarian emergency since the Vietnam War, it took Alan Kurdi's visually documented death to galvanize the Western public's compassion even slightly. It's not as if we were unaware of what was happening, either. The figure of 4 million refugees has long been public knowledge, as are the routine reports of hundreds upon hundreds of desperate souls drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in their attempt to reach Europe. The difference is that the image of a toddler's dead body evokes a visceral response from our conscience – it can be ignored only at the cost of one's moral dignity.
Tragically, we have not yet averted a Faustian bargain. As Alan Kurdi's death occurred in the midst of a Canadian election campaign, each political party was swift to make promises. Four million refugees, you say? The Conservatives promptly opened their hearts, magnanimously pledging to bring in 10 000 Syrians . . . over the next three years. It seems that one of them then happened upon a newspaper and realized that rate might be a little slow given the circumstances, so they brought their deadline down to one year instead. The NDP said it would bring in at least 46 000 refugees over four years, and the Liberals, who won the election, went on to bring in 25 000 Syrians over about five months.
The worst part of all this – aside from the fact that 25 000 divided by 4 million refugees comes to 0.6% of all those in need – is that most other highly developed countries have been even less generous than we've been, incredibly. As of March 2016, the UK had resettled only 1600 refugees, and has pledged to take up to 20 000 over five years. The United States, with a population of 320 million, has accepted about 11 000 Syrians over the last five years, most of whom have only arrived this year. And then there's Donald Trump, who has said that if he wins in November, the Syrian refugees are “going back.”
Trump is the poster boy for those who fear that ISIS will “infiltrate” the West by sending operatives disguised as refugees to carry out attacks. I have two things to say about this.
a) Intelligence agencies are skilled at vetting people who want to enter their country, and even more skilled at thwarting large-scale terror plots.
b) Of the ~11 000 Syrian refugees admitted into the US so far, only 2% are single men of “combat age”. Almost half are under the age of 14.
c) In the recent terror attacks committed by Islamic extremists, including in Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels, most of the perpetrators were born in the same country where the attack was carried out. In other words, denying refugees entry has next to no impact on national security.
Even if it was true that accepting more Syrian refugees posed a higher risk of terror attacks, so be it. If we truly believe that #AllLivesMatter equally, utilitarian logic tells us that the lives we save by accepting more refugees will vastly outnumber the comparably few Canadian lives that might, someday, be lost to acts of terror. Ignoring this simple truth doesn't make us prudent – it makes us cowards.
If our actions are the truest indication of our views, it's patently clear that we don't value all human lives equally. Compare the general reaction toward Syrian refugees with the outpouring of donations and solidarity shown to the people of Fort McMurray earlier this summer. While significant property was destroyed, and tens of thousands of people forced to flee the forest fires, not one person lost their life. That same week alone, hundreds of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, only without the same fanfare. The double-standards that are shown to human life, depending on nothing more than imagined differences and geographic distance, are downright irrational. Any high-minded social-contract argument saying otherwise can go straight to Hell.
The #AllLivesMatter mantra is little more than a useful fiction that helps us feel like decent people. Our sympathies, by themselves, are even more useless than our hashtags. The West's response to the most serious humanitarian catastrophe of my generation's lifetime has been utterly pathetic. I hope we can pull ourselves out of this delusion, find our compassion, and put our money where our mouth is before it's too late to get on the right side of history.