ISIS

Risks, Benefits, and Refugees

Like most people who are tuned in to current events, I’ve been hearing a lot, over the last few days, about the wisdom of admitting refugees to the U.S. As of Tuesday, twenty-six governors had voiced a desire to stop or delay the settlement of Syrian (and some other) refugees in their states (source). Whether governors actually have the power to deny refugees entry to their states seems unlikely to me, but for my purposes here, it’s the thought that counts.

These governors are thinking that one or more of the refugees we admit might actually be a terrorist in disguise. Or that one of their kids might grow up to be a terrorist. Despite the fact that the U.S. is quite capable of growing its own terrorists, it is, of course, perfectly possible that a refugee might be, become, or parent a terrorist. Even the best screening cannot unfailingly predict human behavior stretching decades into the future, and people arguing in favor of settling refugees in the U.S. do their position a disservice if they suggest that no refugee could ever become a terrorist or the parent of a terrorist. If you stake your argument on that kind of absolute claim, then your entire position collapses at the first exception, and whatever the situation, we can pretty much count on there always being an exception.

What we need to do instead, I think, is consider risk and benefit in a careful, rational way. Let’s use a less emotionally charged issue as an example: vehicular deaths. It’s well known that higher speed limits lead to increased traffic fatalities. Accidents that occur at higher speeds are more likely to be fatal because the g-force applied to the body is so much greater. The best airbags and seat belts in the world can’t help much with the fact that the organs in your body are going from 60 mph to 0 in half a second. That means all the fluids inside your organs are slamming up against structures that did not evolve to withstand those impacts. Even if you don’t suffer any blunt force trauma and remain safely inside your vehicle, a high-speed accident can kill you (source).

Cars have become a lot safer. Even as our population has grown, traffic fatalities have shrunk. That said, they’re still awfully high: between 30,000 and 35,000 people die this way in the U.S. every year. We could stop many of these deaths if we were to institute a nationwide maximum speed limit of 25 mph and all abide by that limit. Yes, it would take longer to get places, especially when traveling long distances. But saving, say, 25,000 lives a year would be pretty great. That’s tens of thousands of people who would suddenly not lose a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Not to mention a whole lot of non-fatal injuries prevented. Seems like a powerful incentive, right?

But instead of reducing speed limits, we’re raising them. When I was learning to drive, the nationwide speed limit was 55 mph. Now it’s as high as 85 in some places.

We can map high speed limits in terms of risk vs. benefit:

Risk Benefit
33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries (2013 numbers) convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast; etc.

Now, I like driving fast. And I like my Amazon Prime free two-day shipping. And I’m not eager to have my 45-minute commute become a hour-and-a-half commute. I am, in other words, a typical American: pretty much willing to trade many thousands of lives, families forever disrupted, and hideous injuries for cost savings and convenience. When I think about it rationally, it doesn’t seem sensible. The risk is so great, and the benefits are so superficial. And yet, I am not out there trying to start a 25 to Save Lives movement.

Now, let’s look at a yearly risk-vs.-benefit table for admitting refugees to the U.S. To be generous to the anti’s, we’ll take the worst-ever year for U.S. terrorism fatalities as our measure of risk:

Risk Benefit
several thousand deaths; immediate injuries and possible longterm illnesses; economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

Admittedly, this doesn’t look so good. “Trading” several thousand U.S. lives in order to help 10,000 refugees could be seen as deeply irresponsible. Our governments’ primary responsibility is, after all, to protect us, not to help citizens of other nations.

On the other hand, we have to remember that the September 11 attacks have not been replicated. In a number of the years since, we’ve had zero domestic deaths linked to “Islamic” terrorism. Using this site, I’m counting thirty-three such deaths in the fourteen years since September 11. This article, written prior to this year’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, attacks, puts the figure slightly lower. However you count it, the number of people killed in the U.S. by self-identified jihadists is far exceeded by the number killed by right-wing extremists, such as the wretched specimen who gunned down nine people in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year (source).

What this record suggests is that domestic jihadist strikes pose a minuscule risk to American lives during most years. In years other than 2001, more Americans have been killed by lightning and dogs. Large strikes like those on September 11 are, at least so far, rare. And even when they do occur, the lose of life is small compared to any number of other significant threats that may seem less scary. Like, for instance, car accidents (more than ten times as many Americans killed every single year). And hospital acquired infections (75,000 U.S. deaths/year). And suicide (about 40,000/year). And falls (about 30,000/year). And drowning (approaching 4,000/year). If it’s your loved one who’s killed in a domestic jihadist strike, it’s unbearable. But it’s also unbearable if it’s your two-year-old who’s mauled to death by a dog. Or your mother who goes in for routine surgery and dies of an infection. Or your husband who dies in a car accident. However we lose those we love, it’s unbearable.

So, here’s another way to think about risk: as comparative. We’re willing to trade some tens of thousands of traffic deaths for the convenience and cost-savings that come with high speed limits, but the governors of twenty-six U.S. states are unwilling to trade a handful of yearly deaths, plus the much smaller risk of a larger strike, to help tens of thousands of people who are absolutely desperate. You know how desperate–you’ve seen the pictures.

Let’s do one more risks-vs.-benefits table, this time thinking of September 11 not as a yearly event, which it clearly is not, but as a once-every-fourteen-years level of event (and even that may be way too pessimistic … maybe it’s a thirty- or fifty-year event):

Risk Benefit
High Speed Limits 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries, on average convenience; economic benefits of faster shipping; the pleasure of driving fast
Welcoming Refugees at Current Levels 215 deaths per year, on average, plus injuries and economic disruption giving 10,000 desperate people a chance at a decent life

An average of 215 deaths a year … why does that terrify us so much? Why are we willing to “spend” tens of thousands of lives purchases fun, cost-savings, and convenience but are not willing to spend 215 on compassion?

I’m hardly an expert on this stuff, but this is how it looks to me: if I’m willing to accept the risks inherent in 85 mph speed limits for benefits that, frankly, aren’t all that essential, I should also be willing to accept the comparatively tiny risks that come with welcoming refugees to my community, especially since the resulting benefits go right to the heart of what it means to be a decent person.