An American flag is placed in a dirt-filled barrier outside the headquarters of 3rd Platoon, 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Divivion, at Combat Outpost Nolen in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar July 22, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY) (© Bob Strong / Reuters)

Compassion, not imperialism: Let's prove the critics wrong about America

The refugee crisis is an opportunity to show the world the best of our values. Let's make the most of it

Simon Van Booy
September 14, 2015 4:00PM (UTC)

I once heard compassion (or the understanding of how others are feeling) explained as the story of a mother with no arms whose children have fallen in the river. True compassion is the feeling she has watching them drown.

A few days ago, like so many people who read the news over breakfast that morning, I almost choked on my toast when I saw the body of a little boy washed up on a European beach popular with holidaymakers.


In the midst of the worst European refugee crisis since World War II, it’s the children who have become the face of the conflict. We see them everywhere, pressed up against wire fences, with nowhere to sleep, no bathroom facilities, nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nowhere to go.

Since this photo was published, however, governments and governing institutions (such as the Vatican) have begun responding to the crisis with precision and swiftness. The image of that lifeless child on the sand seems to be having a similar effect on people as Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running for her life.

It’s worth mentioning that before these two photographs became front-page news, it’s not as though people were unaware that children were suffering as a result of the Vietnam War, or most recently the conflict in Syria.


The power of both photographs, then, is how they present to us visual stimuli we can immediately relate to, not only as parents, but as human beings. Like thousands of other people, once my brain had processed what I was actually looking at--a dead child on the beach—I instinctively felt the urge to protect through feelings that were very difficult to suppress.

As a former student of philosophy and anthropology, I’ll admit there are probably strong counterarguments to what I’m about to say, but I can’t help but feel that such compassion (from which the need to protect arises) is perhaps a universal human emotion.

If you disagree, and believe that the wish to aid and protect a child in despair is a learned response—then the question is: Is a culture that ignores the suffering of others a culture that you would wish to be part of?


With the exception of a few world leaders, like Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán, the humanitarian response to the migrant crisis since the publication of this picture has been swift, as people of all nations consider that the measure of any culture is in how it reacts to the suffering of other human beings.

My emotional response to the image of the boy was also amplified by the fact that a few months ago, I was naturalized as an American citizen. Before then, living happily with my green card for over a decade (and enjoying the much shorter lines at airport immigration), I felt a kind of indifference to the values and ideologies of the country I had chosen to be my home. Since becoming a citizen, however, this indifference, the attitude to ‘live wherever I am’ has been replaced, not by nationalism or even patriotism—but by a sense of responsibility to uphold truly American values. Years ago, I would have snickered at such a sentence, mocked it even for being a cliché from a 1980s Hollywood Cold War film, but the fact remains, although the United States has many problems, we are a nation of individuals dedicated to human progress, equality and justice for all.


This is not a country where people are afraid to stand up for what they believe in—for better or worse. We, as a nation have made more social progress in the last 50 years than some countries have made in 500 years. And while there’s a certain amount of chaos that has to be tolerated with this civic and moral freedom, it also makes the culture sizzle with diversity and debate.

As Americans, I believe we have a moral duty to take in refugees from the current European crisis—in addition to the $4 billion already given in humanitarian aid.

If we do give these people the chance to watch their kids grow up in the United States—in a free culture that many of our grandparents fought and died to preserve—then in the long term it’s going to add to our nation’s wealth, and lay the foundation for a future strength, unity and progress that has been proven is the result of legal immigration to this country.


Our rights as Americans have been fought for, and defended again and again. They have been given to us, not only to protect but to share with others to ensure our legacy as a nation.

Whether you consider yourself left-wing or right-wing, rich or poor, religious or atheistic, the fact is that the toughest, the most resilient, the cleverest and most determined amongst us would have done exactly what these migrants have done: fought to protect the lives of our families, packed up what little we had left and gone in search of a place where we could make a peaceful home.

If we give to them now—even basic necessities such as safety, shelter, water and food—then at some point, they are going to give back to us.


But if we ignore them, if we let them die, and let their children die—then we risk so much more, and in 10 years could be facing a crisis far more serious, which our own children may have to suffer through.

Raising money or giving money is really not the long-term answer to this crisis. This is not a situation where the American individual is required to pay a fee to help these people; their survival will not come at the cost of our own.

The tools we need, the most powerful weapons in this fight, are tolerance, kindness, honor and the courage to act—to tell our elected officials, our media, our celebrities—those who represent our ideologies, laws, and aspirations--that the bodies of children washing up at European beach resorts is not something we’re prepared to live with, not something America is willing to stand for. In this case, however, instead of sending troops, guns, and missiles as a response, we need to send something more powerful, something against which hatred and violence have no ultimate defense: a collective hand to those in distress. By doing so, we will remind the world that the American flag stands for liberty and justice, not imperialism and self-righteousness.

Refugee Crisis: Mass Rallies as EU to Decide Quotas

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the author of six books of fiction, including the story collection "Tales of Accidental Genius," forthcoming in November.

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