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Surprising Science

Terrorism Doesn’t Outweigh Everything Else — Unless You’re a Novice High School Debater

Those who want to keep Syrian refugees out of the country are succumbing to a classic error of logical reasoning. 

The tragic loss of life at the hands of Islamic State militants in recent years, and the ongoing controversy concerning the risks of admitting Syrian refugees into the United States, has reminded me of my days as a competitive high-school debater in the late 1980s. Americans who would turn back Syrians from their states or towns, or who want to make the vetting process so wrapped in constraints that it effectively closes the door on the refugees, commit the same sophistical error that young debaters rely on when trying to win their rounds.  

Let me explain. In a traditional policy debate, the affirmative team lays out a plan to solve some problem. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. During my stints at the lectern, the resolutions of the yearinvolved agricultural policy, political stability in Latin America and retirement security. The affirmative’s objective is to demonstrate that its plan will bring great benefits, while the negative team denies that those benefits will emerge and insists that the plan carries a risk of unspeakable disadvantages. It seems almost laughable in retrospect, but the disadvantage of choice for negative teams — again, irrespective of the topic — is a chain of events culminating in military conflict, which escalates to a superpower confrontation, which spirals into all-out thermonuclear war that leaves the Earth and the entire species decimated.

Debaters are happy to acknowledge that such a doomsday scenario is far from an ironclad eventuality stemming from, say (we’re back in 1987), a plan to raise the retirement age, subsidize ethanol, or end funding for the Contras in Nicaragua. But any chance of nuclear annihilation is too much of a chance, the negative side gravely asserts: Low risk multiplied by an infinite harm is still an infinite harm. So no matter what advantages the affirmative can demonstrate for its plan, they are ludicrously paltry compared to the disadvantage of mass death and nuclear winter. In debate parlance, “nuclear war outweighs.” The only way to compete is by claiming that a nuclear war is on its way unless the affirmative plan is adopted. I recall some rounds in which the final rebuttals came down to who had shown that more nuclear wars would be thwarted or instigated by the affirmative’s policy. Talk about overkill.

The heady days of the arms race and the Cold War now behind us, the great scare today is terrorism: spectacular acts of random violence that take hundreds or thousands of lives at a stroke, without warning or mercy. America has seen a smidgen of this, in the scheme of things, although 9/11 looms very large in our collective memory. And when we see a Western ally succumb to coordinated attacks at public venues on a Friday night, and ISIS warns of forthcoming attacks in New York City, those fears are — not unreasonably, as fellow Big Thinker David Ropeik wrote here — piqued.

Everybody freaking out about the Syrian refugees would prefer to extend the suffering of thousands of people in the Middle East in order to prevent an absurdly speculative, unreasoned harm at home.

The worst and most destructive irrationality comes when pondering what might hasten the next 9/11. And this is where too many Americans speculate that some of the desperate people fleeing Syria’s civil war might try to gain refugee status in the United States and then turn around and blow themselves up, taking a few hundred Americans with them. If you are one of those nervous observers (I wrote about one, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, at The Economist), brew yourself a nice cup of herbal tea and cozy up with the Niskanen Center’s sober, clear-eyed testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security’s hearing on the impact of ISIS on the homeland and refugee resettlement. “[N]ot only are refugees unlikely to become terrorists,” the report reads, “they can be important assets in the war against the Islamic State.”

Contrast this calm assessment of the facts, which includes a comprehensive look at the extensive vetting process for refugees seeking resettlement in the United States, with Donald Trump’s blather: “They could be ISIS. They are all men and they are all strong.” Or consider it alongside a somewhat more nuanced, but still unjustifiably alarmist reaction from Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana: “While the United States is a compassionate and welcoming country, our government has an obligation to protect American citizens. We should not accept any Syrian refugees in Indiana or across the country unless the U.S. government can guarantee, with 100 percent assurance, that they are not members, supporters, or sympathizers of ISIS.”

Senator Coats must know that “100 percent assurance” is not a level of confidence one often finds in the real world. His position is the grown-up version of the high school debater’s contention that we must not do anything that is otherwise worthwhile — and welcoming the world’s tired, poor, and endangered is what America is all about — lest the act carries any risk of something terrible happening. Senator Coats must know that this extraordinary and in fact impossible-to-reach standard means that the 10,000 refugees the United States once pledged to settle will instead remain in their war-torn homeland where an autocratic government battles both problematic rebel groups and ISIS militants for power, land, and prestige — with hundreds of thousands of victims along the way. Plunging would-be refugees back into that environment is the only certainty flowing from a policy of denying Syrians access to America’s shores.

As for the 53 percent of the American people who want to halt the modest Syrian resettlement program, the 289 members of the House of Representatives who voted for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, and the 26 governors who want to keep their states refugee-rein? They are the novice debaters who would prefer to extend the suffering of thousands of people in the Middle East in order to prevent an absurdly speculative, unreasoned harm at home. No one wins.

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

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Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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