Political Faceoff: Accept Refugees


Although the situation in Syria has faded a bit from the public eye — overshadowed by the debate — it certainly has not faded from the minds of millions of Syrians and others who have had their lives overturned by war.

For these people, it is impossible to escape the vicious reality of the situation; their lives are a constant living hell featuring bombs, bullets and blood. In Syria, where the conflict has done the most damage, most residents don’t have a day go by without, at the very least, the sounds of explosions nearby.

Many see worse: explosive munitions detonating within yards of them, stray bullets wounding or killing friends and family, flumes of smoke and dust darkening the skies or the scream of jet engines heralding the destruction of entire city blocks. For these people, it is impossible not to dream of escape.

These are the people which make up the rather amorphous group labeled “Syrian refugees,” and the people Donald Trump Jr. equated to skittles while justifying a refusal to take refugees. His infamous tweet, which featured a picture of a bowl of skittles and the caption, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Well, as Mars, the company which produces Skittles, so aptly put it, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy.”

This analogy is emblematic of the reasons we are given why the U.S. shouldn’t accept refugees, although these reasons are not always worded so obviously. Oftentimes the phrasing will be more roundabout, talking about how most Syrians may be innocent but there are a few “bad eggs,” or how ISIS is infiltrating the refugees and so we shouldn’t accept any just in case.

Although these justifications don’t equate people to candy, they make the same basic assumption: some small handful of these people will be terrorists, which means that we shouldn’t take any of them.

Underlying this view is a subtle but significant statistical fallacy: that because some portion of the refugees are terrorists, we must assume that any refugee is a terrorist. In statistical terms, the expected value of a refugee is some number of Americans dead from a terrorist attack. Yet this doesn’t pan out mathematically unless we consider American lives to be worth far, far more than the lives of Syrian refugees. Consider the 10,000 or so refugees we have already taken in.

If one in 20 refugees are terrorists, an incredibly high estimate, then there are 500 more terrorists in the U.S. than there were previously. Let’s suppose that each of these terrorists individually attempt a terrorist plot, rather than working together.

In the period from September 11, 2001 until April of 2013, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank) found that of 60 terrorist attack attempts against the U.S., all but four were foiled. That means there’s a 1 in 15 chance a terrorist plot is successful. Rounding up, that means we can expect 35 of the 500 terror plots to succeed.

The same report indicated that the four successful plots resulted in a total of 17 American deaths, for an average of 4.25 deaths per plot. Let’s assume these are particularly competent terrorists, and manage an average of 10 deaths per plot on average. Then the expected number of deaths from allowing in 10,000 terrorists is 350. Yet that is in comparison to the 9,500 Syrian refugees saved.

That means that, even given these extremely high estimates of terrorist activity, you need to consider the risk of one American’s life to be worth the risk of 27 Syrian lives.

So that begs the question, how many Syrians is one American worth? 50? 100? How can we even try to make that comparison, how can we tell someone they are less valuable because they were born in a different area? This, to me, seems inconceivable.


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