After the Paris attacks and subsequent uncovered threats and deterred attacks throughout the rest of Europe, it is no wonder that people are filled with fear. It is not an unfounded fear or irrational fear. It is a fear based in reality, a legitimate fear: a reaction to a very real, very dangerous, and very serious threat. There has not been this fear of Islamic terrorists since the September 11th attacks, but when numerous violent attacks are carried out in a place so similar to our home, it is hard to not look at ourselves and immediately have the desire to protect our homeland. This desire is a basic instinct, but it extends further than that. It is our Christian duty to protect our homeland, to protect our families, and to protect our neighbors. The question is not being raised as to whether we need to protect our home, but rather how to protect it. Moreover, how do we live out our Christian obligations that sometimes seem at odds with each other as seen in the debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees into our homeland? On the one hand, we have a duty to help, in whatever capacity, our brothers and sisters in the international community. However, we also have an obligation to protect our families at home. At times, it seems nearly impossible to fulfill both obligations, as there are real and legitimate life-threatening risks associated with bringing refugees here.
Do we bring legitimate Syrian refugees into our country and run the risk of allowing terrorists to also enter? Or do we close our borders entirely, thereby eliminating the risk of terrorists crossing our border under the guise of being a refugee but also ignoring our Christian duties to help those in most need?
As Christians, we have a duty to the common good, giving dignity to each individual and providing the social conditions necessary “for people, either in groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church 164 ). Ensuring the common good is intricately linked to the principle of solidarity, which requires that all individuals work to make life liveable for all individuals. This principle encompasses a larger meaning of the common good (economic and environmental for example), but the focus here will remain on the peace and security of all members of society. It is the responsibility of each country’s government to ensure the common good, guaranteeing peace, unity, and safety or security. As individuals, we have a responsibility to participate in promoting the common good of society, including those of other countries. This is also known as providing for the universal good. The universal good calls for the international community to provide for the needs of all individuals, particularly those who live in misery, such as refugees fleeing war-torn areas. But in what capacity? How do we balance the duty to protect one’s own society and that of the international community?
In order to answer this question, one must first accept the premise that our Christian duties are prioritized. We have an obligation first to our family, then to the larger community and country, and then to the international community. We must first take care of those people for which we have a personal responsibility for: the family (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1914).
The family is understood as the first natural society and is at the center of society, being a divine institution standing at the “foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church 211). As such, we have a foremost duty to protect our children, brothers and sisters, and parents. Since our families are part of a larger society, we then have an obligation to protect our neighbor, but not at the expense of first protecting our family (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2212). Therefore, security is first due to our family, then our neighbor and our country, and then to our brothers and sisters in the international community. Without securing first our family and homeland, we cannot possibly guarantee the security of those from the international family.
This is what our politicians, particularly President Obama, needs to understand. If we allow thousands of Syrian refugees to cross the border, without properly vetting them, we open up the possibility that terrorists posing as refugees will slip through and pose not only imminent danger to our community but the refugees that we have promised security and safety to by permitting them to enter the country. Currently, we don’t have the necessary resources to vet and properly ensure that a large number of refugees admitted to the country are not terrorists. After all, we can’t even ensure that the thousands of immigrants illegally crossing the border everyday are not criminals. This is not to assume that immigrants and refugees are terrorists and criminals. However, we have the duty to do our due diligence in vetting all individuals entering the country, just as we have the duty to do so when allowing people into our homes. Just as we would not allow just anyone into our homes, we should not and cannot allow just anybody into our country without first ensuring that they pose no danger.
Allowing thousands of refugees into the country without being able to properly vet each one would be telling these refugees that we could provide a safe environment for them along with our citizens. However, in actuality we cannot keep such promises while the threat of terrorists posing as refugees remains real and we do not do everything in our power to prevent such individuals from entering the country. It’s not too far-fetched to think that terrorists would take advantage of this and pose as refugees.
Many American citizens and leaders are against allowing refugees into the country for this very reason. Most are not against Syrian refugees because they are Muslim or Syrian, but because they are not being assured by our leaders that we can keep the terrorists out or catch those terrorists posing as refugees. This is not an illegitimate fear. We need to recognize that this fear is born out of a concern for one’s own safety and the safety of the family and larger community.
During a time when words such as “compromise” and “bi-partisan” are thrown around by our politicians and presidential candidates, neither “side” is assuring the American people that their fears are legitimate and that there are ways to meet those fears as well as follow through on our Christian duty to the international community. The result might be to lower the numbers of refugees we allow in the country substantially, but in doing so we can more truly assure the security of the citizens (the government’s first and foremost priority) as well as the security of those legitimate refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East.