A Philosopher's Blog

Refugees & Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2015

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.


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36 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on November 18, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    We do act exceptionally, and never get credit for it from liberals. I see memes by libs on FB, declaring the US the world’s greatest terrorist. Do you believe this?

    First, only 20-30% of the refugees are from Syria. In other words, they’re not refugees. They are jumping in on the gravy train. Does this change the equation?

    Secondly, since you like illustrative anecdotes: Suppose three men come to your house, asking to stay there for a month. You’ve heard about these men, and heard that one of them like to kill dogs. The other two are fine, however. All deny liking to kill dogs. Do you let them into your house? IF you do, and they kill your dog, are you responsible for your dog’s death?

    Give them a place to go, agreed upon internationally. Feed them, clothe them, and when the war is over, send them home. Don’t bring them here.

    Lastly, as I can attest, being in the Army, when dealing with large groups of people, rules that regulate interpersonal relationships do not always translate well to policy.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2015 at 7:36 pm

      If the chance of having a dog killer in my house was 1 in 3, I would certainly not admit the men. This also assumes that I have no way of determining who the dog killer is and no way of ensuring that the dog killer will not be able to kill my husky.

      But, if there were 2 chances in 750,000 that there might be a dog killer, the three men had been subject to an extensive review of dog killing behavior, and there were measures in place to guard against dog killing, and they needed somewhere to live and I had the room…then I’d take the risk.

      This is the sort of risk we take when we help anyone-there is always a non-zero chance they might hurt us. It is matter of determining the risk and weighing the pluses and minuses.

      • magus71 said, on November 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm

        The chances are approaching 100% that SOMEONE will be killed by members of ISIS hidden among refugees. So what number are you willing to sacrifice for the cause? Several people in the US have already been killed my people sympathetic to ISIS. Do national leaders have duty to their people, first and foremost?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 24, 2015 at 4:13 pm

          True, there is probably a 100% chance that one person will be killed by an Daesh terrorist entering a country as a refugee, immigrant, tourist, or student. There is also a 100% chance that some foreigner entering the country will kill at least one person. There is certainly a 100% chance that an American will kill another American. So, would your recommend totally sealing the borders and having everyone enter into single-occupant isolation bunkers? If your threat threshold is one death, then this needs to be applied across the board and not just to Muslim refugees.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 19, 2015 at 10:04 pm

        Or you could just put the people up in a hotel.

  2. Anonymous said, on November 18, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Also, liberals like yourself constantly bring up the fact that terror attacks actually kill few people. Do you think this is a coincidence?


  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 18, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    “Vladimir Putin, right now, with his airstrikes, is killing the people we armed and trained.” ~ US Senator John McCain

    (See (after 2:31) John McCain: Cameron’s statement on Syria is disgraceful https://youtu.be/lIvgwqR2dDA)

  4. nailheadtom said, on November 18, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    The “vetting” of refugees is a joke. Why would the Syrian government, for instance, provide any kind of information about their emigrants to a a power with whom they are at war? The only information available to US investigators will be whatever the refugees in question care to provide, which is unlikely to put them in a bad light. Aside from that, whatever any one individual does, he does for a first time. There was a time when I drank my first beer, there was no record of me having consumed one before that. This is the case as well with criminals of every stripe. There is a first time that they shoplifted, committed robbery or killed someone. It’s perfectly feasible that a very evil person could be admitted to the US and commit his first crime some time after arrival. Any attempt at predicting the future behavior of a refugee, especially one with no accessible record, is futile. This means that investigators will refuse admittance on the basis of arbitrary and meaningless criteria, admitting as few as possible to cover their own rears.

    Ultimately, the current mass migration to Europe is another example of the movements of peoples described by Toynbee in A Study of History, movements that have occurred many times throughout recorded history. People in the US may wish to arrest the change they see coming around them but nobody has ever been successful in such. A recent example is the influx of Southeast Asians after the Viet Nam debacle. The Vietnamese, Hmong, Karen and other groups that have established communities in the US have created minimal problems for their hosts and are now part of the fabric of society, despite widespread fears of the effect their arrival would have. In the past, Europeans had no qualms about bringing their disruptive influence to American natives, Australians, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, Filipinos and others all over the planet. Yet now they’re worried about a few thousand Arabs with smart phones.

    • Anonymous said, on November 19, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      “Europeans had no qualms about bringing their disruptive influence to American natives.”

      Do you have a problem with this? You admit it was disruptive ?

    • Anonymous said, on November 19, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      What a massive glazing over of conflict between cultures you just produced.

  5. Paula Kiger (Big Green Pen) said, on November 19, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Well said ……

  6. TJB said, on November 19, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Mike, you state that the risk is small but why would you believe that when you know that the Islamic State will try to insert as many of its followers as possible into the flow of refugees? So, if anything, the risk is quite high that some of the refugees will commit terrorist acts here in the US.

    We have no real way of vetting the refugees. If you remember, we couldn’t even figure out which of the rebel groups we could arm. Now, since it is so easy to get a gun here in the US, the same people who we would not give a gun to over there will have guns over here.

    So, let’s put the matter bluntly. How many American lives are you willing to sacrifice so that we can feel virtuous?

    And you never provided a reason as to why we cannot help the refugees while keeping them in the Middle East. This seems like a perfectly good policy option.

    • Anonymous said, on November 19, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Yes, as I stated elsewhere: lobs want us to help in only the ways they want. We’ve give, as always, more money than anyone. But libs keep crying as they’re prone to do.


    • nailheadtom said, on November 20, 2015 at 12:21 am

      Assuming that the leadership of ISIS isn’t as moronic as that of the US, don’t you suppose that they already have agents in place, in the US, ready to carry out missions? Isn’t that why a person is searched before getting on an airplane or entering a hockey arena? The Homeland Security bozos evidently believe that the country is crawling with terrorists or one wouldn’t need to remove their shoes and get X-rayed before a flight from Chicago to Phoenix.

      Aside from that, there’s a war going on. A new, recently formed state, ISIS, is engaged in hostilities with pretty much the entire western world. Their soldiers, the guys spraying bullets in Parisian nightclubs and restaurants, are soldiers, carrying out the orders of their state, just like the soldiers of the French, German or US states. If their men are terrorists, killing non-combatant civilians, then so are ours. The Muslims of the middle east, lacking fighter jets, drones and aircraft carriers, aren’t going to fight according to the rules of the Great Satan. They’ll make their own.

      The West certainly has a right to defend itself from ISIS and other groups. However, it behooves Westerners to understand that the Muslims carrying on the fight feel that god is on their side. They think the West is made up of terrorists.

  7. Anonymous said, on November 19, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    We’ve given 4.5 billion dollars to help the refugees? How are we refusing to help them?

    • WTP said, on November 19, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      Not to mention the blood spent that can never be repaid. The number of men who died because the life of a civilian, or a presumed civilian, we considered to be so much more valuable than that our own troops. You will note the Russians are not playing that game but hardly a peep from these bed-wetting “we’re better than that and we’ll prove it with someone else’s blood and treasure” leftists.

      With the left it’s a constant whine of “yes, but what have you done for me lately” with ZERO responsibility on their part. Then they turn around and want to put on their big-boy pants and play the grown-up about responsibility. People on the left, especially those in academia and the media, have no f’n idea what responsibility means. Which is quite apparent in the campus drama we are seeing across the country right now in some of our most, supposedly, prestigious academic institutions.

  8. WTP said, on November 20, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    Here you go Magus & TJ. Full of facts and truth. Can’t argue with this. Mike is right.

    Now don’t y’all feel silly and foolish?

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 20, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      This is a joke, right? Obama has done nothing but incite fear.

      • WTP said, on November 20, 2015 at 11:38 pm

        No, no…you guys are afraid of three year olds. If we fight ISIS we only give them what they want, thus by fighting them they win. And you only would want to fight them because you are afraid of what they might do. See? Fear. Were you not afraid, there would be no reason to fight. QED.

        How do you figure Obama has incited fear? He’s opposed to fear. See? QED again. Damn, I love proofs.

        • TJB said, on November 20, 2015 at 11:58 pm

          This week we are supposed to fear climate change.

          2 minutes of hate against the fossil fuels that have lifted billions out of poverty.

          • WTP said, on November 21, 2015 at 7:42 am

            Don’t change the subject. Besides, now you sound like you fear Obama. That’s like being afraid of women and three year olds. See? QED again.

  9. TJB said, on November 22, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

    FBI Director James Comey recently warned that his caseload of ISIS suspects has exploded to more than 900 in all 50 states, with hotspots in the New York-New Jersey area, as well as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

    These are active, open investigations and don’t include the 66 Muslim men and women around the country the bureau has already charged with alleged ISIS activities over the past two years.

    The huge caseload is overwhelming the FBI’s capacity to conduct surveillance and disrupt terrorist plots. Making matters worse, ISIS suspects in the United States are switching to mobile and gaming apps with encryption that thwarts the FBI’s ability to monitor their communications. If suspects have gone “dark,” agents may not be able to track their plans.

    Comey is scratching his head over the sudden shift in focus by ISIS wannabes from foreign fighting to local jihad.”


    Scratching his head. I like that. Can he really be that clueless?

    • TJB said, on November 22, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      900 is the tip of the iceberg. If ISIS is perceived to be “the strong horse” the number of ISIS supporters in the US will explode.

    • WTP said, on November 22, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      Scratching his head. I like that. Can he really be that clueless?

      Yes. Assuming he wants to keep his jib.

      • WTP said, on November 22, 2015 at 1:41 pm

        Channeling Inspector Clouseau…his job…obviously…

  10. TJB said, on November 22, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Mike, here is a subject for a future post. We are hearing a lot about “cultural appropriation” these days and that it is a bad thing.

    For example, here is a yoga class that was canceled:

    Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of “cultural appropriation.”

    Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.

    Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” according to an email from the centre.


    So, Mike, the question is: how does this square with multiculturalism?

    • WTP said, on November 22, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      Mike’s already written three whole posts on the silliness going on on college campuses. He’s busy now churning out another column on the hypocracy of Ben Carson based on the rumor he once masturbated when he was a teenager. And besides, this was in Canada…the yoga thing, I mean.

      • TJB said, on November 22, 2015 at 4:24 pm

        It is here, too. Not long ago there was a kerfuffle about whether whilte women should be belly dancing.

        • ronster12012 said, on November 29, 2015 at 10:47 am


          By that reasoning blacks should not be playing basketball(or football) as they were invented by whites.

    • WTP said, on November 23, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      In regard to college silliness, this from Mike Rowe’s FB page:

      …many people are wondering why anyone would pay $60,000 in annual tuition to an institution with so little regard for the First Amendment. Others have wondered aloud why we should tolerate this level of dissimulation in our institutions of higher learning. The answer is easy – because we must. This is the great paradox of our democracy. In order to honor the flag, we must be free to burn it. Likewise, the freedom to educate our kids the best way we can must be accompanied by the freedom to brainwash them in the worst way possible. But of course, that doesn’t mean we should all have to pay for the brainwashing in question. That’s gotta stop, pronto

      … the 1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loans is money that belongs to us. We The People have made unlimited funds available to those who wish to attend college, because we’ve determined that college is a worthy social investment. But we seem to have forgotten that making unlimited amounts of money available to unlimited numbers of students has enabled universities to charge unlimited amounts of tuition. It’s also created an expectation among students that a job in their field of study will be waiting in their preferred zip code upon graduation. Shockingly, this hasn’t happened, and now, along with ultimatums for “friendly reportage,” the noisiest members of The Class of 2016 are demanding total debt forgiveness, a $15 minimum wage, and the immediate dismissal of those professors or administrators who dare to disagree. …it’s enough to make the casual observer weep for the future.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 24, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      That is an impressive piece of unjustified and harmful action. Presumably they will also cancel all martial arts courses, etc.

  11. TJB said, on November 23, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Mike’s ideas at work.

    • WTP said, on November 23, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      That’s not fair. Mike has never had a chance to repeat the lies and distortions in the article described here. He’s too busy repeating lies and distortions about GOP candidates and other conservatives. Now if Ben Carson is shown to have had any interest in a person or entity with an interest in nail salons, going back to his elementary school days, I am quite sure Mike will be right on top of this story.

      On a serious note, this video highlights the damage that is done by people in the media so enraptured with leftist ideology, combined with the general laziness of thinking that goes along with such, that they fail to live up to the tremendous responsibility that goes with being a person with such a large megaphone. Real people are hurt by this. And this is a high-profile story due to its being centered in NYC, yet you don’t see many other news media outlets giving this story the prominence it deserves. It takes Reason magazine to push it. And even now, just googling nail salons nyt on their News tab the hits I’m seeing are either Reason itself or the NYT spinning the story to focus on the idiot Korean city assemblyman who was first for the stupid law then did a 180 against it. A few conservative-leaning media (NY Post, others I’m not familiar with) are lower in the hit list.

      Now as I said, this is a high-profile story and the NYT has had to back down from it, so I expect the victims will get some degree of restitution either financially or, as now, from a PR standpoint. Imagine how many other media, and academia, lies and distortions that have much less visibility are propagated every day and the damage and harm that those stories do to victims that never see any rectification.

    • WTP said, on November 23, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      In other news more pertinent to Mike’s post, clock-boy is suing for $15 million because his reputation has been damaged. You will note my use of the passive voice…and the spin WaPo gives this story. For some reason they’re the only MSM link to this story that I can find right now…I’m guessing the NYT is working real hard to get the facts straight now.


  12. TJB said, on November 23, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    When I read this stuff, it helps me understand why Trump is doing so well.

    The Syrian crisis that is spreading terror across the world was prompted by climate change, the Prince of Wales has claimed.

    In a controversial interview, Charles argued that the cumulative effect of global warming was ‘one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria’.

    He warned that a decades-long failure to tackle climate change inevitably meant ‘greater conflict over scarce resources’ and that even the Pentagon had realised the root cause of war and terrorism was ‘what we’re doing to our environment’.

    His outspoken comments were made in an interview with Sky News recorded before the Paris attacks.

    Charles claimed the current crisis resulted from five or six years of drought in Syria, which forced vast numbers to leave their homeland.

    His remarks follow US research in which scientists said that climate change was a key factor in the 2011 uprising that sparked the civil war in which 250,000 Syrians have died and more than 11million have been forced from their homes.


    • ronster12012 said, on November 29, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Don’t pay any attention to Prince Charles, he is the result of inbreeding. No one in Australia (of which he is a prince or something) thinks of him other than as an inbred idiot.

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