An Earnest Response To Douglas Murray’s 9 Questions Immigration Ban Protesters Must Answer

A little while back, a retweet from Sam Harris caught my eye. This was not more than a day after massive protests and chaos had broken out at major U.S. airports over Donald Trump’s immigration ban (the first one). The ban suspends the U.S. refugee program temporarily, pending a formal white list of countries from which future refugees might be accepted (Syria’s status is suspended indefinitely). Further, the order temporarily suspends anyone from seven named countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya, from any travel to the U.S. whatsoever.

Like many on the left, I had my dander up. This is one of several recent orders from Mr. Trump that has suddenly energized U.S. progressives. This President understandably engenders visceral reactions of frustration, anger and resistance, and one feels temptation to add one’s own barbaric yawp to the fray.

Sam retweeted an important Spectator article that I first dismissed, then had to come back to because it made me stop and consider my positions: “Nine Questions Those Protesting Against Donald Trump’s Immigration Ban Must Answer,” By Douglas Murray. Murray is a serious thinker with important, if not provocative, viewpoints. There can be a lot of daylight in between his views and my own, but his articles are thought-provoking, and demand the dissent be backed by evidence.

As I read Mr. Murray’s 9 questions, I was compelled to reflect. I titled my response using the word “earnest” because without it, a casual glance at the word “Response” might suggest I was throwing back a thoughtless rebuke. Not so. As the questions are serious, so shall the answers endeavor to be.

1. Do you accept that America (like many other countries in the world today) has security problems? Do you recognise that despite the giggly charts on social media showing lawnmowers to be more of a threat to American life than terrorism, there are legitimate security concerns that reasonable Americans might hold?

Yes, I accept that America has reasonable security concerns. I’ll do this question one better: I’ll pile onto the criticism of those same “giggly” social media charts. The one that comes most readily to mind is a table that Ian Bremmer tweeted out, showing the odds of death by various events:

While information like this can bring some perspective, particularly on the point about the annual number of shootings in America, it’s also important to remember something about Black Swan events.

This table does not have an entry, for example, for the number of Americans killed in a Magnitude 9 earthquake. The U.S. (thankfully) hasn’t had one since the ’60s. But around the same time, a Magnitude 9 earthquake in Chile took somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 lives.

Rare, high-impact events are pernicious. They’re often sudden, devastating, and there’s often not enough data to know how well we’re mitigating against them.  What’s more, they’re usually under-anticipated, because we try and predict their frequency by assuming their distributions conform to a nice, neat bell curve. Catastrophic events are usually more frequent than this kind of analysis would predict.

High-death toll terrorist events are another such Black Swan event, and the physical and psychological impact of such events cannot be displayed using the framing of “annual deaths.”

To the broader question: yes, America obviously has security concerns to be addressed. Some of these are self-inflicted, whether they come in the form of institutional failures, like reports of TSA screening failures during testing. Or whether it’s administrative neglect, like the technological readiness of our ballistic missile system. For that matter, our porous southern border is indeed a security concern, draconian redress measures notwithstanding.

Because we are faced with such issues, one of the most important characteristics of our nation’s leadership should be that of a sober, problem-solving mentality. Reforming our internal security processes will take savvy analysis and creative, collaborative measures. Respect for facts, science, and the promotion of ideas based on merit are the prerequisites for all of the above.

2. Do you recognise that Islamic terrorism is not a figment of a fevered imagination, but a real thing that exists and which causes a risk to human life in America and many other countries? This isn’t to say that other forms of terrorism don’t exist – they obviously do. But how might you address this one (assuming you can’t immediately solve global peace, poverty, unhappiness, lack of satisfactory sex, masculinity etc)?

I think anyone who would claim that Islamic terrorism is a figment of a fevered imagination should, as Hitchens would say, “…be voted off the island right away.”

Psychological impact notwithstanding, the U.S. is largely shielded from the realities of radical Islamist terrorism. According to the State Department, there were 28,328 terrorist deaths worldwide in 2015 (as of this writing, the most recent year with available data). Of those claiming responsibility, the top three perpetrators are the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram, and combined these three radical groups carried out 57% of all terrorism fatalities. Compare this with 44 terrorism fatalities in the U.S., only 24 of which had confirmed connections to radical Islam (San Bernardino: 16, Chattanooga: 6, Garland, TX: 2). Americans, so comparatively removed from the worldwide epicenter of Islamic extremism, might have a harder time grasping its scale.

3. If you do recognise the above fact then would you concede that large scale immigration from Islamic countries into the US might bring a larger number of potential challenges than, say, large scale immigration from New Zealand or Iceland?

I might start by saying that, as noted in the preceding answer, only half of 2015 U.S. terror fatalities had connections to Islam. This also happened to be the year of Dylann Roof and Colorado Springs. So depending on how many far-right reactionaries live in Iceland or New Zealand, we might want to start looking at those countries pretty seriously too.

Compared to other ways Americans die, we concentrate disproportionately on Muslim immigrants not because of our everyday chances of dying in a jihadist attack, but because we’re scared of The Next Big One. Jihadist groups are the only source of modern terrorism both capable and motivated enough to manage a rare, large-scale U.S. homeland attack that would be both difficult to predict and hard to mitigate. Since, as this question implies, any immigration or refugee program will inevitably welcome someone with harmful intent, the question becomes: How can we mitigate the chance of a immigration-related security threat without sacrificing our liberal democratic principles?

Let’s talk about some of the principles at stake. First, the issue of bigotry. Blanket bans (or even thinly-veiled bans) on immigrants which discriminate based on ethnicity or religious community are by definition bigoted. I anticipate a rebuttal here that a “religious community” is not an inborn trait like skin-color or sexuality, and therefore immune from criticism. I would respond that membership in such a community is largely due to chance, and therefore an immoral means of discrimination.

If you are born today in Iowa, say, you have a 17% chance of being born to parents identifying as “Catholic”. Regardless of how dearly you choose to hold those beliefs yourself, you were born, by sheer luck, into a Catholic tradition (i.e. area, family, upbringing, etc.). If someone placed a travel quarantine on Iowa because they were for some reason afraid of Iowan Catholic radicals, you would be singled out for this treatment based on nothing but the lottery of your birth circumstances.

That same roll of the dice might have seen you born into the Muslim tradition that our President stated on the campaign trail he wanted barred from U.S. entry. Most people subject to such a ban would not have exercised choice in affiliating with the banned group. That’s what makes it bigotry.

The second principle is the moral issue of imposing religious tests for entry, exemplified in this case by the “minority religion” test for preferential admittance of refugees. We’ll set aside for a minute the principle that the government must not respect an establishment of religion (a principle that, in law, applies only to citizens but is grounded in a larger liberal democratic ideal). Surely the same compassion that applies to a Christian refugee fleeing persecution extends in no less respect to a Muslim refugee in similar flight. Is the danger of a refugee’s death or torture any greater if they are a member of a persecuted minority religion of a country (a Coptic Christian in Egypt, for example) than if they are a member of a persecuted sect of the majority religion (an Iraqi Kurd, say)?

These are a few of the principles arguably sacrificed by an immigration ban like the one put forward by President Trump. Confining refugee flow to 50,000 persons per year, coupled with a “prioritization” of persons who represent a minority religion of the originating country, attempts to keep out most Muslims by putting them at the end of the line. The additional immigration ban on named countries is a thinly-veiled attempt to ban Muslims from whatsoever countries the administration can justify.

We now look to the other end of the balance, as to whether this kind of ban makes the U.S. safer.

The construction of the particular ban under debate is famously idiosyncratic in it’s choice of focus: Going back to 1975, no national from any of the seven countries in question has committed a terrorist act against the U.S. The countries whose citizens have most often committed acts of U.S. terror in that time are Saudi Arabia (19), Pakistan (14), Egypt (14), and Cuba (14).

This is not to say that citizens of the seven targeted nations have never been implicated in terror plots – they have – but that does not change the most obvious fact of the matter: a country-specific immigration ban that fails to deal with the countries from which most terrorists have originated will not provide any meaningful safety.

The ban also implies by its nature that we anticipate future terrorism coming from outside infiltrators, which has not been the trend since 9/11. According to the same Atlantic article cited above,

“[E]very jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident,” New America reports. During that time period, more than 80 percent of individuals who were charged with or died engaging in jihadist terrorism or related activities inside the United States have been U.S. citizens or permanent residents (the tally also includes Americans accused of engaging in such activity abroad).

It’s possible to suppose that inductive logic wouldn’t work here; that the largest-scale attacks requiring the most coordination and sophistication would necessitate terrorists training abroad and then traveling to the U.S. However, as of now there are no indications that foreign nationals pose a substantially larger terrorist threat than U.S. citizens, the latter being totally unaffected by the travel ban.

The ban also reduces the number of refugees that the U.S. will accept annually to 50,000, and there’s no clear explanation of why then new refugee admittance rate will be substantially safer than the old one. Since 1975, America has admitted an annual average of 78,371 refugees. President Obama’s proposed raising of this number to 110,000 would have been only a 30% increase. No one has been able to explain to me why a 50,000-person annual limit on refugee intake constitutes a serious security improvement over 110,000 (which is equivalent to only 0.031% of the U.S. population).

I suspect the answer is that this limit, together with the prioritized admittance of “minority religion” refugees, will work as a de facto Muslim refugee ban.

As originally phrased, this question asked about the “challenges” inherent in immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Challenges will come along with any significant immigration from countries that are drastically different in their cultural liberalism from that of the host country. This need not only apply to Islamic countries, but it certainly does apply to them. Properly managed immigration and refugee policy requires some kind of pacing, both to accommodate cultural assimilation of migrants and also to mitigate reactionary backlash within the host country. Western Europe has become a recent case study for this, arguably welcoming immigrants faster than their societies can comfortably accept them.

All that being said, the core of this ban’s repugnance is not it’s attempt to secure our borders but it’s codification of xenophobic attitudes. It originated not as a well-considered policy for national security, but as a scream of terrified nationalism. America’s default attitude, particularly toward the troubled people of the world, should be a combination of compassion, extension of aid where possible, and gratitude to those who do immigrate for subscribing in equal measure to the further building of this nation.

4. Is everybody who wants to visit Disney World morally akin to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? If not then what are the differences, and is it always wise to conflate the two?

I was tempted to pass on this question, because of how frivolously it’s phrased. The question seems to assume its answer.

I will merely point out that:

  1. This is one of the reasons why we have separate conversations and policies for immigrants as we do for refugees.
  2. The refugees fleeing civil war in Muslim countries, particularly Syria, are actually fleeing annihilation at the hands of another religious sect. While not akin to Jews fleeing the Holocaust, it is persecution and the problem deserves our compassion and action.
  3. The U.S. would to well to remember its history of turning away Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Many of our previous travesties were rooted in religious discrimination, and that might be useful to remember when we prioritize entry of today’s refugees based on their belonging to the “minority religion” of their originating country.

5. Would you recognise that Iran is one of the world’s leading state-sponsors of terror, and that, for example, an Iranian-born American citizen in 2011 was caught planning to carry out a terror attack in Washington (against the Saudi Ambassador)? Would you recognise that aggravating though a temporary halt on all Iranian nationals visiting the US might be, and many good people though it will undoubtedly stop, there is a reason that some countries cause a greater security concern than others? Might citizens of a country whose leadership regularly chants ‘Death to America’ present a larger number of questions for border security than, say, citizens of Denmark whose government rarely says the same? What would your vetting policy be to distinguish between different Iranians seeking to enter the US?

Well, for starters, whose to say that a Danish citizen of Iranian family wouldn’t pose an even greater security concern, given the less scrutinized access to the U.S. his citizenship would provide? Denmark is a small but nonetheless participating part of the Iranian Diaspora.

Iran is indeed the world’s leading state sponsors of terror in its enabling and financing of Hezbollah and Hamas, for the support of anti-coalition insurgents in Iraq. Iran’s monomaniacal quest for atomic weapons seems to intelligence experts the most likely route by which terrorism could gain a nuclear dimension.

However, an Iranian national would be the least likely perpetrator of an Iran-sponsored U.S. terror attack.

Iran’s last sponsored attack against U.S. interests was the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, when 19 U.S. airmen were killed. But the U.S. swiftly uncovered leads linking the bombing to Saudi Hezbollah and therefore Iran. The latter seemed to have realized that it would not be able to easily evade detection for terror acts it sponsored.

Unlike non-state actors like ISIS and al Qaeda, Iran has a vested interest in deniability. It’s ambition to crown itself the hegemon of the Middle East requires at least a veneer of respectability, and so it will ask its terrorist clients to change cabs a few times.

If and when Iranian terror next visits the shores of the U.S., we’re more likely to see a western nation citizen with Iranian ties, or a citizen of a Hezbollah nation (e.g. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia) as the face of it. None of these groups would have been affected by the ban in question.

6 – Does the whole world have the right to live in America? This is a variant of the same question we Europeans should have been asking for years. If you do not think that the whole world has the right to live in the USA then who should be allowed to live there and who should not? Who might be given priority?

The second part of this question really nails the crux of immigration policy difficulties.  Because the stakes are so high, policies like these must be very carefully considered.

Some of the factors that currently weigh into the legal immigration process include the fields and skills (read, contribution capability) of workers, the reuniting of families under certain circumstances, and the credible threat of harm to those seeking asylum as refugees. I think factors like these are reasonable in the abstract, although their relative emphases could be debated.

And no matter how soberly and wisely debated these matters ever are, they will never escape seeming somewhat arbitrary to many of those affected. It’s no small matter to decide that a mother may be reunited with her daughter, say, but not her sister.

I don’t believe that a person need have all these details worked out into a perfect personal preference before having the intellectual grounds to condemn the particular ban under question.

7 – If you believe in giving some people asylum, as I do, who should be given priority? Should asylum be forever? Or should there be a time-limit (such as up until such a time as your country of origin is deemed safe)? How do you deal with people who have been given asylum, whose reason for asylum is over (i.e. their country has returned to peace) but whose children have entered the school system (for instance)?

The current asylum system in the United States has no inherent time limit, other than a requirement after one year that refugees adjust their status formally to Legal Permanent Resident (i.e. apply for a Green Card).

Forced repatriation of refugees, even after their country of origin has been “deemed safe”, seems like an outcome to be avoided if at all possible. If and when, for example, ISIS forces in Syria are finally defeated, imagine forcing U.S. Syrian refugees back to live in a bombed-out crater of a country, under the loving and benevolent rule of Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, only a portion of asylum-seekers are fleeing war zones. Currently, many potential refugees from the Middle East (the main area of concern for this discussion) are fleeing ambient Sunni / Shia violence. That kind of credible threat may not be “deemed safe” for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Time-limited asylum also does nothing to address the security questions that are the main concern of this dialogue. If we are worried about individual bad actors slipping through the process, then we must focus on the 18-24 month refugee case review prior to admittance. The only bearing these kinds of time limits would have on security would be if it were thought that growing immigrant communities were encouraging domestic radicalization. No evidence of that has been presented to the conversation.

I see no inherent problem with the permanent U.S. resettlement of refugees. Humanitarian concerns dictate that we provide some setting of stability to the world’s most vulnerable people, when we can. In trade for this stance, and in view of some other considerations, we probably must accept an annual ceiling on the number of refugees accepted.

8 – Is it wrong that the Trump administration says it wishes to favour Christian refugees over Muslim refugees? This is a fascinating and difficult moral question. Many Christians refuse to accept that the plight of Christians – even when they are the specific target of persecution – should be given priority over anyone else. This is a noble example of Christian universalism, but is it wise or moral when you consider the limited numbers that can come in and if you accept that the entire persecuted world cannot arrive in America?

I’ve spoken about the priority question earlier in the article. That the new refugee directive in question imposes a euphemistic religious test offends any reasonable sensibility. The prioritization of those asylum seekers who belong to a host country’s minority religion effectively shoves Muslims to the end of the line. From a humanitarian standpoint, a credible threat to one’s safety knows no religious litmus test.

9 – How do you identify the type of Muslims who America should indeed welcome? And how do you distinguish them from the sort of Muslims who the country could well do without? In other words, what would your vetting procedures be?  There are some people who have thought about this. But what is your policy?

I probably would have phrased this, “…the type of immigrants whom America should welcome,” because anti-liberal values will not always be the province of a single religion. But thank you for cutting past the political correctness and going straight to the quick.

Answering a question like this feels creepy, and it should. A hundred years ago, we would have been talking about the kind of Irishmen and Italians who should be welcome. One’s liberal democratic values instinctively recoil from the chauvinism in making such judgments of others.

Based on the article cited in the question, I feel like I’m really being asked, “Are there certain Muslims whose views are so conservative, and contrary to western values, that they should not be welcome in American society even if they pass all other screenings?” And I will concede that all theocratic views, by definition, are fundamentally incompatible with advanced civilization. This includes Christian theocratic views.

But I am not worried about a theocracy, on the whole or in part, governing in the United States. This is a strength of having a written constitution, and a reason why America might be less vulnerable than some European nations to a shift in values introduced from without. Where religious conservatism (of any kind) bubbles outside of the community level, it becomes a matter for the criminal justice system. The most pressing problem is the criminal activity within certain communities that we cannot easily see; recently, a doctor in Detroit was arrested for performing female genital mutilation, that she had apparently provided the service for decades.

If any immigrant should be denied admittance, the fault line should break away those who intend to do harm to the U.S., or those whose views are so conservative that they are likely to break the law in the name of observance. Since our immigration and asylum screening protocols are the only barrier preventing such people from entering the U.S., we should be having robust debate on the strengths and weaknesses of these protocols.

Trump’s executive order mandates the deployment of “extreme vetting,” and the article cited by Murray quotes the six screening mechanisms from the EO that must now be put into place. These include in-person interviews, questions aimed at identifying malicious intent, and mechanisms to determine whether the applicant intends to perform a terrorist act. The problem is that it’s not especially clear that these mechanisms are not already in place with the current screening system. A CBS report on the subject, for example, tells us that numerous federal document databases are already referenced in the process, and that the existing problem in one of database integration rather than mere existence.

The American political system has tried and failed to shape rational immigration policy for decades. Though most of that failure is political, the substance of immigration policy is quite difficult to set in stone. For one thing, the circumstances on the ground evolve faster than policy decisions can keep up. More to the point, people are losing their very lives on the basis of whether or not they can escape to the U.S., and so the difference of a few thousand more or fewer entrants in a year is literally a life-and-death determination. The issues raised here deserve our most sober reflection, and the healthy moral intuition rebels at such important decisions treated with this administration’s offhandedly bigoted manner.