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The Trolley Car and the Refugees - The Choice Ahead

by Dr. Paul R. Camacho
Tuesday, December 22, 2015

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A trolley car is careening down hill; the switchman faces an ethical dilemma: set the switch left and kill seven workers; set it right and kill three children. What is an ethical decision when both paths will cost lives?  Here I offer an adaptation of this classic problem in western ethical literature as it applies to the refugee crisis. The switchman represents America’s dilemma: accept or deny the refugees, with deadly projections in both cases. Further, I recognize the following: (1) some terrorists will come in with the refugees.  (2) The present terrorist global offensive will probably crescendo through the election season and for the foreseeable future.  (3) We (the USA) will suffer a number of horrendous attacks - regardless of decision on refugees. (4) A coalition must militarily reengage the terrorists again, and this action I see as a third iteration of the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria.

One side of the dilemma says do not accept them. To allow them is to accept more casualties. America should avoid the lunacy of that compassion and toughen the vetting process to address our immediate security. Another iteration of military engagement to eliminate the terrorist is essential. Turning in this direction is predominately the position of governors and candidates of the Republican Party and many voters. The decision is framed as a “clash of civilizations.” Islamic people are fundamentally so different from us that conflict is unavoidable. By dividing the world into two clashing civilizations, a decision to reject the refugees accepts the ‘realist / neorealist’ construction of international relations that claims the past is yet the present and the present is indeed the future. Power is essential. Reference to leadership is a rhetorical device to emphasize and legitimate the neo-realist position of full spectrum dominance forcefully advocated by the neoconservatives. It is focused on the immediate, the short-term, corporate view expressed by Donald Rumsfeld in his demand for “results now”!

Given this powerful argument and its linkage to the realist / neorealist policy traditions, how can I justify allowing refugees in and accept the inevitable casualties? I can only begin to frame my position if assume that in either case my family members will be killed!  For if killing lies on both sides of the dilemma, where does the value of their death lie in each case? Only if I posit such a terrible and very personal loss, am I forced to ask the question - what would my family have died for? This must certainly be a question many family members of casualties have already asked themselves in the prior conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Further, it leads logically from contemplating my personal loss as a profile on the American foreign policy landscape to considering the landscape itself. It engenders me and virtually anyone else to envision possible / plausible alternative futures, one to three decades forward.

The Iterations of Conflict


·   The embryonic stage of terror - from “Charlie Wilson’s War” to the Gulf War - US arms the Mujahideen  of Afghanistan for proxy war against the Soviets - after victory it abandons the follow-up of security and development of peace


·   Terror comes to adulthood - the Gulf War to September 11, 2001 - US defeats Saddam Hussein’s advance in Kuwait - but resists pressing further, which would severely weaken the coalition of legitimacy. However, the U.S. maintains its huge bases in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region - The forces of terror become ever more, organized, funded, and adroit - a crescendo of terror occurs with the attacks of September 11th


·   The conflict with terror - The war in Afghanistan achieves a temporary military victory - “Victory” is lost in the failure to engage in serious security, peace development with the change of focus to Iraq.


·   1st Iteration of conflict with terror - the fall of Saddam to the “surge” in Iraq - there was no thought of developing a comprehensive plan for the future of Iraq - whatever goodwill there was is lost by the lack of security and peace development and the “results now” strategy of Abu Ghraib - US creates the surge to tamp down the conflict and allow space for a coalition government.


·   2nd iteration of conflict with terror - the post surge to the Arab Spring / Syrian revolution - Terror metastasizes into the Daesh, a more nihilist and psychotic force than religious; they seek to destroy history; eliminate / reeducate the intellectual and intelligentsia classes; seek a year 600 for those under their control?; recruit children; introduce evermore draconian  norms for behavior; they destroy identified enemies and transgressors with savage brutality - (this is the exact path of the infamous Khmer Rouge who claimed to represent a pure form of communist advance, destroyed history, declared a year zero, recruited children; eliminated educated classes, became evermore draconian in  their imposition of normative behavior at the daily level - killing over 2 million of their fellow Cambodians)


·   3rd iteration of conflict with terror - Daesh must be militarily confronted; its distributed network of franchises destroyed - but will the West actually follow up and follow through with security and peace development? - winning military battles is far less than half the effort - security / peace development (forms of ‘nation-building by whatever name) is upon the global community whether it would want it or not


To fail to fully engage in decades-long investment in genuine security and  peace development is to ensure another rise of the beast of terror, one again more cancerous, expansive, and violent than the previous iteration requiring a 4th iteration of conflict


Will the West have the staying power for the long difficult road for peace development or simply settle for endless reiterations of conflict?

Again, what could I possibly envision that would allow me to achieve meaning - accept and have closure for my personal loss of family members? The only future envisioned that could suffice would be one that overcomes the suffocating boundaries of the neo-realist position, moves beyond the concept of perpetually clashing civilizations, and secures an openly integrated, that is, secure and peaceful global society.

However, the genuinely integrated global society has to be built on authentic respect for alternative cultures. It requires that economic development be organized such that the base, working, and middle classes share and have a sizable stake in the creation of wealth from economic growth. That requires a framework that shifts away from endless iterations of military confrontation toward actual dialogue, multiple dialogues, on a global scale involving people at all levels of society.

How do the refugees fit into this framework? The decision to reject them is to surrender to the fear of the terrorists and become radicalized against “outsiders.”  It constricts the narrative and creates barriers.  It is not conducive to peace. The political leadership (predominantly the Republican governors and presidential candidates - but also including some Democrats) in the United States are advocating this position in both strategic and moral error. They have allowed themselves to become ‘radicalized’ by terrorists, and they would play into the terrorists’ gray-zone strategy which is to definitively demark civilizations by separation and hatred. The US Republican leadership gives rise to fear so palpable that they are on the verge of rejecting the spirit of “Lady Liberty” and would rather choose to allow 10,000s of mothers with young children to perish rather than absorb some level of casualties from terrorists hiding among the refugees - a danger, which is not eliminated entirely by rejecting refugees.  They would reject America as inclusive rather than take a risk that could (with no guarantee of success) lead to a new and far more moral and cooperative narrative of international relations. Thus, the uncertainty and fear is overwhelmingly driving them to choose endless iterations of conflict as we have seen for the last 12 years and which logically can only lead to an apocalyptic outcome if not altered.

I would rather see my nation and particularly my nation’s leaders have a change of heart and take a step toward increasing the long term possibilities for peace by welcoming the refugees and genuinely working with them to begin the creation of a new narrative for the West / North and the Arab / Islamic civilization, and all other civilizations around the globe. The concept can be called “Welcome, / Build / Defend” and is embodied in the statue of Liberty, whose value refers to a future based on resetting the histories, the narratives, of those arriving. America faces a dilemma, wherein neither choice is risk free.  How will America choose?  Can America welcome the truly downtrodden from Syria and elsewhere, build a positive model of inclusion, defend these values, terminate endless iterations of conflict, and develop a strategy for global security and peace? I imagine we will soon find out. I would choose the path for mercy and inclusion because it represents a path for reconciliation and peace. I would plead that Somali Americans who have returned to help rebuild their nation, consider my argument, secure their absentee ballot, and vote their conscience in 2016.


Dr. Paul R. Camacho
The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences
University of Massachusetts Boston (Retired)
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston MA 02125-3393
[email protected]
[email protected]
603-491-1119 cell

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