Human beings have an inspiring moral fiber marbled into the sinews of our consciousness, yet very rarely do we put it on display. Recently, the tragic picture of a fallen young Syrian boy lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach challenged this shared moral fiber and brought humans together to an awakening about right and wrong. The photograph of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s tiny body in the sand, and then in the arms of a somber Turkish officer walking across the beach set off a firestorm of soul-searching by many Europeans in late August. By chance, I happened to be traveling through Italy, France, England, and Ireland when it happened, and it was something to behold. As a note: if you google key words corresponding with these events, you can find several powerful photos. Interestingly, I found the American view of Google search results makes the images much harder to find than when I was searching while in Europe. The Wall Street Journal actually has an image of the front pages of many newspapers using pictures of Aylan….
Three-year old Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of a resort area after he drowned in his family’s failed effort to seek asylum on the Greek island of Lesbos. Aylan’s 5-year old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, also drowned, along with at least 12 of the 23 people riding in two shoddy inflatable boats provided by four Syrian human traffickers. The Kurdi family paid the smugglers about $4,400 for 2.5-mile sea crossing. With more enlightened immigration policies and practices in nations around the world, the same amount of money could have purchased airline tickets for the whole family to Vancouver, Canada, which had been their ultimate destination. But, our planet’s understanding and response to immigration is anything but enlightened.
The massive numbers of people trying to emigrate from war torn or impoverished nations like Syria and Iraq, along with those looking for a life with more opportunity, have precipitated the biggest immigration challenge faced by European nations since World War II. But, Aylan’s death served as a catalyst for a dramatic international conversation about immigration issues as a matter of morality, not just politics and economics. Aylan’s small dead body, in its red t-shirt and blue shorts, put a face on a largely invisible problem for most of us in the western world. As the prophet Isaiah noted in the Old Testament, “a little child will lead them (11:6)” and it seems that Aylan Kurdi is that child.
When it comes to the competing values involved in a messy topic like immigration, whether through legal or undocumented means, most of us tend to have “universal principles” buried deep in our unconscious that form our position long before we have all the facts. Some of us are positively disposed to the issue of immigration, making room in our common life for those in search of safer lives and better opportunities for themselves or their children. Others jump naturally and immediately to a sense of threat at the possibility of “others” crossing the moats of our lives and nations because they might unravel our national identity and disrupt our cultural practices. Both are grounded in a strong sense of obligation to community, but the latter has a more narrow understanding of community as primarily me and mine . Both orientations are also committed to a common good-it’s just that the definition of the commons is very different in each, one expansive and diffuse, the other limited and focused.
In Joshua Green’s best-selling book, Moral Tribes, he explores our default positions for moral issues dealing with the commons based on decades of interdisciplinary cognitive science studies. Green contends we all have the same hardware in our brains for discerning right from wrong, but because of centuries of cultural conditioning we use the hardware to come to different conclusions. The conditioning predisposes us toward certain decisions when it comes to moral issues about our common life, says Green, and only then do we work backward in our thinking to find justifications for what we have already unconsciously decided is the right path. Some researchers might say we “feel” what is the right conclusion, and after the fact marshal intellectual arguments to prove the rightness of that feeling, much as a lawyer goes about trying to convince a jury. This process is buried deep within us and it has taken humans a long time to draw attention to this act of moral rationalization.
You can see this subtle process at work in Donald Trump’s simplistic comments about the so-called murderers, drug dealers and rapists crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico, and his later justification of these careless comments with an immigration policy position that reeks of biased appropriation of support (See here: http://www.theguardian.com). A similar self-justifying process is seen more directly in Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s repeated statements that he does not want to make room for the immigrants flooding his nation, because too many Muslims might change Hungary’s comfortable “Christian” ethos. Orban goes further by insisting: “Our Christian obligation is not to create illusions, hopes in people who will risk their lives in the hope of something that we know is not real.”
To suggest, as he does, that the Christian tradition values forcing other people to embrace their desperate and hopeless conditions as their true lot in life is theologically absurd. Christianity stands for telling the truth of things, but it also holds out a radical hope for salvation and liberation in this life, as well as the next. Over the past century, Christian denominations have been retrieving this ancient belief that God desires to relieve human suffering in the here and now as well as the hereafter, and it is now central to the belief systems of most Christian believers. After all, Jesus, the founder of the religion, and his parents, were immigrants fleeing from Herod’s persecution to Egypt. A similar process is happening in many other religious traditions that are connecting to their roots, and this common re-discovery is a part of the most exciting advancements in interreligious dialogue. But, Green might argue, Orban is just doing what we all do with our moral instincts about things in our common life-we try to find arguments that prove our instincts are right. In Orban’s case, and those of many others, you can’t find a better justification than by convincing yourself that your faith tradition, and by extension, God, also wants you to reject humans in extreme need in order to help them embrace the full desperation and hopelessness of their existence.
The people who are the most simplistic about border restrictions have a justifying narrative of the average immigrant that is more fiction than fact. Their internal moral intuition seeks justification so bogus generalizations like Trump’s seem reasonable to them. But, most migrants are not seeking to live off of social welfare systems in the West. Most worked in their country of origin, and dream of doing so in a new home. More than a few had professional positions as store owners, architects, lawyers, police officers or healthcare professionals. And, contrary to what some people are led to believe, those who emigrate are not doing so out of greedy motivations-immigrants, legal or otherwise, are a generous lot. The amount of money migrants sent back to their country of origin to help their families and friends last year is estimated at $167 billion. This is more than all international aid combined.
Trump and Orban are not alone in marshaling arguments for their moral decision making process. An exaggerated instinctual drive in the opposite direction on the immigration issue is equally problematic. Those calling for open borders with no consideration of cost are operating out of a culturally conditioned instinct for how to manage our shared commons, rather than a factually based decision-making process. There is a legitimate argument that allowing a large number of immigrants into a nation will create profound and perhaps unmanageable pressure on certain local and national resources, such as health care, security, educational and social services. This is particularly relevant when many nations have cut their budgets as a fiscal response to real or perceived economic limitations. It is also fair to assert that large populations of displaced people can attract a criminal element seeking to prey on the vulnerabilities of a moment of crisis.
However, Aylan’s photographs certainly shifted the perception of a large number of Europeans (and many others in the world) concerning the nature of most of the people fleeing dangerous regions of the world like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. More men and women from privileged nations have intuited that the majority of the world’s immigrants are more like the Kurdi family than the shadowy Islamic State terrorist or the drug dealers, murderers and rapists portrayed by Trump. Green, a supporter of a form of utilitarianism he calls “deep pragmatism,” would suggest that humanity’s pathway to a moral sensibility with a wider angle lens on who constitutes our tribe will come through greater use of our higher cognitive powers, rather than a potent image. From my position on the ground in Europe, he looked more like an emotional reaction than a carefully weighed assessment of doing good for the most number of people (a basic premise of utilitarianism).
Either way, the facts suggest a more positive intuitions of immigrants are correct. Most of those fleeing their nations of origin have stories similar to Aylan’s parents. Rather than stay within reach of ISIS insurgents, the Kurdis wanted to escape a war torn city of Kobane, Syria, to build a better and safer future for their two young boys. Like many of those crowded into refugee camps around the world, the family’s original plan was more safe and logical, but it was thwarted by deficient immigration policies. They attempted to seek asylum in Vancouver, Canada, where Abdullah has had a sister living for the past 20 years, and had the funds for the passage. But, the Canadian government rejected the application. It was desperation that forced Abdullah and Rehan to chance the dangerous ocean crossing to Greece. Human traffickers, charging exorbitant fees for passage, were eager to accommodate.
The image of Aylan Kurdi’s dead body seemed to help a lot of Europeans make a leap from their narrow tribal orientation to something bigger-a harbinger, perhaps, of Green’s final hypothesis of a gradually emerging new tribalism that is global in nature. Like those who rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II, a significant number of Europeans decided that the moral imperative of taking care of other humans overrode the societal costs. Perhaps we are beginning, and just beginning, to think of our tribe as everyone (and perhaps everything) on the blue planet we share.
The tragedy of the Kurdi family has proven to be a test of Joshua Green’s thesis that we are developing a moral instinct with a bigger, more expansive tribe and has spotlighted a massive global crisis that has been going on for a long time. The number of international migrants moving from developing nations to developed nations had already reached 191 million in 2005. Although most people moved for economic reasons to escape poverty, many immigrants flee their nations to avoid torture, the threat of injury or death from wars, and multiple layers of oppression.
Aylan’s death set in motion a cascading series of events that are resulting in an international shift in immigration policies. The photos of Aylan inspired many citizens to launch social protests against their government’s treatment of people fleeing from life-threatening circumstances. Some citizens set about gathering thousands of signatures on petitions that called for basic reform on immigration policy and practices in their country. In Ireland a number of the parents of young families actually went on television news programs to offer to share their own home with a refugee family. Germany announced they will take 500,000 immigrants per year for an undisclosed number of years, and have begun to speak of these immigrants as new blood for the greying traditional German population. This will result in a profound cultural transition for a nation that has prized its heritage, and will set in motion significant changes in the descriptors for national identity.
Meanwhile, leaders in the European Union have become emboldened by the humanitarian sentiment arising in the citizenry of less generous nations to immigrants, and have proposed a dramatic policy that would actually set immigration quotas for every nation in the Union. Those countries refusing to accept their goals would be fined, sending money to the other nations fulfilling their moral responsibility to the humans in need. Under pressure within the United States, the Obama Administration also raised its Syrian immigration number to 10,000 in the next year, which constitutes nearly six times the total number of Syrian allowed entry into nation in the previous year.
However, the seeming ignorance some of us in the U.S. have of our own national demographics is vexing. In 2013 it is estimated that there were about 41.3 million immigrants living in the US, an all-time high. By 2015, the number reached 42.1 million. We now are home to about 20% of the world’s immigrants, and one quarter of the U.S. population is a first or second-generation immigrant (migrationpolicy.org). And, we should not feel as if we are unique with this challenge; virtually all nations with more economic or political stability than their neighbors have immigration challenges on their borders. There are camps of 3,000 to 5,000 immigrants near Calais, France, with all of them trying to sneak onto trucks or pay truck drivers to give them entry through the Channel Tunnel into the United Kingdom. While more than 1.6 million Afghans have taken up residence in Pakistan, Spain is inundated with migrants from Morocco and North African countries (See, http://www.globalissues.org). Massive numbers of humans are on the move within their own countries as well. Nearly 3.1 million Iraqis, for instance, have been internally displaced within their home nation due to violence and the collapse of social infrastructure. This is our new world. Humans long to breathe the air of freedom and self-determination in an environment of peace. Most of all, they burn with the desire to live as human beings.
It is heartening that Europeans are taking the immigration issue seriously, and increasing numbers are coming down on the side of compassion, mercy, and generosity to the stranger. Personally, I hope Green’s thesis is proven correct and our tribes are getting bigger. But, it is more likely that this will not last long-large-scale displays of corporate moral clarity rarely do. In the United States, we saw such collective moral awareness after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, after the Sandy Hook massacre of young children. But, alas the outpouring of moral clarity fades quickly and we move on to other concerns.
The women and men who transform cultures know that moral sensitivity to complex and systemic issues has a short shelf life, and they get busy when they see the opportunity for moral awakening, an expanding sense of who is in the tribe. Therefore, ever since the pictures of Aylan went viral organizations serving refugees and immigrants have been hammering on governments to respond to the millions of people herded in inhumane conditions. Let’s hope the moral sensitivity that this little boy’s body awakened in Europe sustains long enough for developed nations to create permanent humanitarian policies for those who seek to flee to their shores for protection.
“Something new is growing under the sun,” Green summarizes optimistically at the end of his book, “a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it’s good.” It is ironic that a little boy set all of this in motion. Or, perhaps it isn’t at all. The full passage of Isaiah 11:6 hints that the evolution of our moral sensibilities will come from an unlikely source: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.” Is it possible Alyan’s death is helping to move the human race toward this broader understanding of who is a member of our tribe?