by Russell Johnson
In defense of the recent executive order about immigration, Senator Steve Daines wrote, “We are at war with Islamic extremists and anything less than 100 percent verification of these refugees’ backgrounds puts our national security at risk. We need to take the time to examine our existing programs to ensure terrorists aren't entering our country. The safety of U.S. citizens must be our No. 1 priority.” No doubt, the Senator expresses what many in our country are thinking. There is much to be said, and much that has been said, about the effectiveness and rationality of this particular executive order. But I’d like to focus on two truths we must not forget: No matter what we do, innocent Americans are going to die. But there are fates worse than death.
It is impossible for us to have “100 percent” verification that someone is not a threat. That is not possible for refugees, for immigrants, of even for natural-born citizens. The government can sometimes predict, based on a person’s past actions, whether or not they are likely to commit a terrorist act. We have a complicated process of screening and data analysis built on the work of countless experts. But no matter how exhaustive it is, our screening process will miss threats, and terrorist attacks will happen on U.S. soil. Innocent people are going to die, and we are not going to be able to prevent all of those deaths.
Of course no one really denies this, but politicians and journalists prey on our fears, whipping them into a dangerous paranoia. We sacrifice our moral commitments, sometimes we even sacrifice our reason, all for an idealized safety. A good thing becomes an idol when we expect from it more than it can give, and when it demands a cost we should not pay. In contemporary America, national security is an idol. If we expect that we can prevent all terrorist attacks, in the pursuit of safety we will sacrifice more and more of what makes America good. The logic of “by any means necessary” always leads to increasingly sinister means. This executive order is the latest in a long line—from both parties—of laws that need to be resisted not only for the damage they do but for the precedent they set.
In a recent interview, Eric Metaxas defended the executive order, saying, “If you want to care for your neighbors, you have to make sure that you are yourself, first, healthy. Just like they say on the plane: Take your own mask first before you help the person next to you.” This makes sense, and of course Americans should indeed attend to our own nation’s well-being. But the analogy breaks down. Because unlike securing an oxygen mask, taking care of national security isn’t a task we can ever complete. We may diminish the number of attacks, but they will keep happening and we will have to keep ramping up our defenses, in the process alienating, abandoning, and hurting more people. I worry that America is becoming a country so narrowly focused on securing our own oxygen mask that we neglect to help our more vulnerable neighbors.
Morality always comes with a cost. The cost of doing the right thing is recognizing that sometimes people will die because you were unwilling to act otherwise. The Christian Just War tradition, for example, states that it is better to lose a war than to win it by unjust means. If Americans prioritize freedom and compassion over our own safety, some of us will be killed by terrorists. I live in a major city, it might even be me. But it is better to strive to live justly than to aspire only to survival. That is why I cannot agree with Senator Daines that “The safety of U.S. citizens must be our No. 1 priority.” If safety truly were our top priority, we would be a pitiful country.
It is well worth asking right now whether this executive order will make Americans safer. (I don’t believe it will, but there may be information I don’t know about.) But as we move forward it is also worth considering what kind of country we want to be, and what risks we are willing to incur to be that kind of country. As for me, I would rather be killed in a nation I can be proud of than live to old age safely sheltered behind a wall of fear.