In recent weeks we have witnessed on the European continent a storm-tossed and surging sea-drift of deracinated humanity unlike the world has ever seen since the months immediately following the end of World War II.
The refugees have billowed forth from camps along the Syrian border, where an unspeakably brutal and indecisive war among numerous factions, including the nefarious dictator Bashar Al-Assad and the equally noxious Islamic State, have engendered a humanitarian disaster of seemingly apocalyptic proportions.
The tragic predicament of the refugees has been obvious for a number of years now, specifically since the Syrian civil war itself reared its monstrous head from out of the chaos of the Arab Spring. But so long as the crisis was perceived as a “problem” primarily for the United Nations and the countries in or near the Levant, it was considered simply collateral damage from the West’s conflicted foreign policy in the region.
Suddenly, however, the swarms of increasingly desperate displaced peoples took it upon themselves to begin migrating out of the Eastern Mediterranean and forging their ways into the heart of the European Union itself.
The European response, as we all are now quite familiar from news reports, has been the proverbial “deer in the headlights.” Both the initial, generous open-arms approach announced by German chancellor Angela Merkel and the chauvinistic, closed-borders urgings of former Communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe have succumbed to the sheer momentum of the refugee onslaught.
Meanwhile, American commentators have been piously clucking about Europe’s moral obligation to accommodate the entirety of the refugee population, while the Obama administration itself has been hesitant to allow into the United States any more than a relatively token amount of stateless persons.
And the American commentariat has been awash with blame-gaming for the crisis itself, faulting everything from Middle Eastern civilization itself to the Obama administration for its vacillation, temporizing, and refusal to become involved militarily, which now appears the only obvious way to stop the slaughter in Syria and Iraq.
What the Western opinion-making machinery has lacked in all this folderol is a deeper and more ironic sense of history. American op-ed observers, in particular, have tended to frame the refugee crisis as a stark and non-negotiable moral choice between offering hospitality to Emma Goldman’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and cretinous, ethnocentric, quasi-fascism.
But the reality is far more nuanced. ISIS has bragged already about infiltrating the migratory wave with the aim of positioning jihadists eventually to take down Europe. Many European economies, particularly in the south and east, are not in any way strong enough to absorb the economic, let alone the cultural, impact of millions of primarily Islamic Middle Eastern refugees.
In many ways the situation is far less comparable to the end of the Second World War than to Europe’s Völkerwanderung (“wandering of the peoples”) at the opening of the fifth century, which resulted in the collapse of the Roman empire and most semblance of civil order for at least four centuries.
As many European historians today understand, the Roman implosion had less to do with the evisceration of pagan virtues (contra Gibbon) or God’s judgment on the pax Romana (contra Augustine) than with the inevitable pressures of what today we would term “globalization.”
The commercial dynamism and relative prosperity forged through the imposition of law and order by Roman legions over the largest area the world had previous known sewed the spores of a “new world disorder” that eventually could not be contained by either armies or bureaucrats.
It was not so much the “decline” of Rome, once known as urbs et orbis (“city at the center of the universe”), as it was the rise of previously marginalized ethnic entities at the empire’s extremities who now began to compete and enter into ever more violent conflict for what they considered their “fair share” of the wealth of civilization.
The process had been building for centuries before the Visigoth leader Alaric engineered the sack of Rome. Alaric himself fits the profile of what today we would refer to as a “strongman” from the developing world, who was no longer content to keep his kinsmen in the shadow and shackles of the empire.
Nor was he afraid to challenge what had once been the mightiest military infrastructure on earth in order to obtain what was his very simple prize – the imagined vast stores of gold supposedly stashed in the coffers of the “eternal city”.
As Mark Miller argues in his contribution to a wide-ranging analysis of globalization and migration at the turn of the millennium (Ghosh, ed., Oxford University Press, 34), the collapse of communism with its closed, command economies was inevitable given the huge changes in technology and communications that were drastically reshaping the planet in the waning decades of the twentieth century.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 uncoiled pent-up market forces, which in turn gave rise to upheavals in whole societies that manifested as accelerating flows of labor as well as capital and of course entire populations themselves.
Today the process is once again gathering force. Just as the enormous differentials between the temperature of regions in winter foster the instability of air masses as well as violent storms along the interface, so the enormous political and economic polarities of the planet today are bound to generate human “storms” of unprecedented magnitude.
The newest and dramatic Völkerwanderung involving the peoples of the Middle East can of course be assigned multifarious causes, compassing everything from the familiar narrative of the Sykes-Picot treaty and Europe’s imperial ambitions in 1919 to the self-absorption of the Obama administration to the failure of Arab civilizations to modernize.
But the basic problem, as one perceptive commentator has noted, is that the West is suffering its own grave crisis of identity along with a congenital myopia about its ability to remain aloof from a planet in chaos.
As Simon Winder writes in The New York Times,
At the heart of Europe’s confused response to the refugee crisis is a feeling, largely unexpressed but still quite palpable, that these desperate, robbed, half-starving Syrians are in some way a contaminant, that to allow them in will result in Europe’s getting something horrible and staining on its fingers…This is not just knee-jerk racism. It is very important to Europeans to see themselves as living in a lucky citadel of rationality, a managerial environment based around consumer choice…The world outside consists of inauthentic migrant states (the United States), dictatorships and poverty.
Of course, many in America who are not as close at the moment to the upheavals underway have much the same attitude.
The horrors of September 11, 2001 reminded us for a brief while that America is no longer a tranquil island in a hurricane-riven ocean of humanity. But the subsequent military pushback is now instinctively invoked as the primal sin from which the demon seed of today’s seemingly endless conflict has sprung.
That is a convenient explanation, especially for our morally smug generation. But it is no more than a comforting self-deception.
It is becoming more and more obvious that refusal to become involved militarily can have equally noxious consequences, as the clueless Western emperor Honorius learned the hard way in 410 CE. We are in a time when all the conventional wisdom about how best to “manage” the turmoil everywhere around us is exploding like Roman candles in a dark, empty sky.
Like the ancient Romans, astounded by the sack of their city, we can muster all our cherished political resentments and scapegoats on both the right and the left to convince ourselves that what was inexorable could somehow by avoided. We rely on what we consider the “correct” policies, or strategems of administration (what organizational theorists, taking a cue from Max Weber, term “managerial rationality”), rather than the powerful yet covert purposes of the living God, which only the eye of faith can discern.
The shocking truth may be that no policy, even the most well thought out, is workable at this point. We are left at one level to the vagaries of the wind and waves. But at another more profound level we are called to crazy acts of confidence and courage in the higher, opaque “rationality” of the will of the One who is ultimately in control of all history for all time.
Augustine recognized this dichotomy when he wrote his City of God in defense of Christians against the charge of the pagans that by abandoning the gods of their ancestors they had opened the floodgates. Today we hear similar charges that we have to undergo our woes because we have abandoned the gods of the secular, liberal Enlightenment.
As Augustine writes in City of God, “what could be more hapless than a man controlled by his own creations? It is surely easier for a man to cease to be a man by worshiping man-made gods than for idols to become divine by being adored.”
The new Völkerwanderung brings to naught the idols of Western secularism. We have little choice but to stand down in the hope that Someone is wiser than us.