Immigration in the Aftermath of Berlin

The Mirror has an article up about the Berlin Christmas Market Terror attack sounding all the superficially right notes about how to react to it. I agree with the overall sentiment, but since immigration is rapidly becoming the Issue of the Year, broad outlines aren’t enough. This is an issue we need to start talking about in more detail, and so it’s worth pointing out what it gets wrong.

It does more or less what you’d expect. (1) It does whatever it can to point out that Anis Amri was a criminal long before he was a jihadist. (2) It notes that the Polish driver of the truck – who apparently fought back and quite possibly managed to blunt the impact of the attack1 – was also an immigrant, and that any blanket bans on immigration would’ve kept him out as well. (3) It argues that the filtering system worked in the attacker’s case – because he was denied asylum and slated to be deported, and because the only reason he wasn’t deported in time to stop the attack is because Tunisia failed to issue him a passport in a timely manner. (4) It reminds us that treating all muslims as a monolithic invasion force is exactly what ISIS and similar groups want, as they are actively trying to forment war between Islam and the West. (5) It reminds us that open societies don’t preemptively jail people for what they might do, but only for what they do do – which is to say, it reminds us that there are moral limits on profiling, however effective it is in identifying likely wrongdoers.

There is nothing to disagree with in any of that. In particular, (4) and (5) are points worth keeping in mind. To the extent "western values" have anything to say about this kind of incident, it’s that guilt-by-association isn’t a principle of law. The law can only punish you if you do something illegal – and neither being a muslim nor being a suspicious character is illegal.

Nevertheless, articles like this are overly simplistic. Let’s take each of these arguments in turn and show how.

  1. Anis Amri was a criminal long before he was a jihadist. That is probably true of most jihadists, actually. There’s nothing magic about the Koran such that reading it hypnotizes anyone into being a psychopath. We know from research done on kill rates during WWII (primarily by S.L.A. Marshall) that most people aren’t natural killers and will just kind of half-ass it in warzones. Moreover, even after we recognized this and specifically trained soldiers to kill (rather than just hit their targets – i.e. to consciously murder enemy soldiers), kill rates improved only slightly (but apparently enough to make a difference). Most people are just really uncomfortable with killing other people. The Mirror article seems to be addressing some kind of straw man audience of people who think that jihadist ideology is infinitely transformative. That’s fine, as far as it goes – I guess a lot of the general public really does think that way – but notice how delving into Amri’s criminal background is completely ineffective if you’re thinking about this more intelligently. What if, as seems likely to me, jihad isn’t appealing because of some Rod of God magic power, but rather just is the kind of thing that attracts and enables latent psychopaths? Sort of like gangsta culture in American ghettos? I mean, listening to gangsta rap won’t make you a killer, but I wouldn’t be even a little bit surprised to learn that gangsta rap is more popular among gangland killers than it is among the general population. If you like violence, and you like exercising power over people, jihadist ideology will appeal to you. What probably happened in Amri’s case is that jihadist ideology is what inspired him to step up his game from mugging people to killing them by the dozens. And yes, that’s a problem that implicates immigration from countries where jihadist ideology is not taboo insofar as the ambient level of thugs that come in from these countries are more likely to undergo exactly this transformation. Not only that, but many of them will be motivated to abuse the immigration/asylum system to enter the West after they’ve already undergone this transformation merely because jihadist ideology specifically identifies non-muslims as free game for violence and killing. So, the Mirror argument works if you really believe in the magic power of Islam to turn people into violent killers. But arguing against irrational fantasy is not impressive. It has nothing to say about the real concern – which isn’t so much that anyone thinks muslims are uniquely horrible as that there is a uniquely horrible subculture from a particular subset of muslim countries that poses a real threat to the West. It really doesn’t matter that this subculture is not coterminous with Islam. This subculture is highly correlated with Islam, and it encourages latently psychopathic people to abandon what few restraints are left and do a lot more damage than they would left to their own devices. That’s a problem, and one that our governments are well within the confines of their mission statements to use their immigration authority to help control.

  2. The Polish driver of the truck was also an immigrant. So? There really isn’t a problem with selective immigration restrictions and quotas. Virtually every country in the world already has these in place. Polish culture isn’t infected with jihadist ideology. Polish culture is highly similar to German culture. Polish citizens, as a general rule, integrate very well into German culture and legal norms. That is a good argument for allowing Polish immigrants into Germany with few (if indeed any) restrictions. Tunisian culture is infected with jihad (a point the Mirror article ironically makes on its own in a different context, presumably not realizing how severely this undercuts its general argument). Tunisian culture is not remotely similar to German culture. Tunisian immigrants have a difficult time integrating into German culture and legal norms. These are good arguments for sharply limiting the number of Tunisians accepted.

  3. The filtering system worked in Amri’s case. This is probably their worst argument, both because it is largely untrue, and also because even to the extent it is true (which isn’t very much), the very external factors the Mirror argument wants you to forget are the ones that prevented it from being effective. Those factors, obviously, are that the system is overloaded with applicants, and resources for dealing with people like Amri are stretched to the breaking point. This is nothing other than the super-familiar tradeoff between what’s ideal and what’s practical. Ideally, you can go park your Ferarri in front of the housing projects. Practically, it’s likely to get vandalized. Ideally, we can let as many people in from all over the world as want to come and do whatever it takes to help them integrate. Practically, we have problems of our own, and there are simply not enough resources available to allocate to that kind of crazy ambitious project. As long as resources are limited, there are going to be tradeoffs. Ideally speaking, you can let a million middle eastern immigrants come into a country of 80 million people in a single year. Practically, it was very, very stupid to do that. As to the Mirror‘s point, it really doesn’t matter that Amri came in before the unrealistic policy decision was made. Resources are not magically un-stretched for anyone who happened to come in before the Chancellor had a brainfart and decided to ignore economic reality. Nope, they’re stil stretched. And indeed, assessing the risks posed by bogus asylum-seekers already in the country as a result of opening the floodgates is one of the many, many things that should have been, but weren’t, taken into consideration beforehand. I mean, look, if you have a little bit of debt, and you decide to take on a large amount of debt, nobody thinks the little bit of debt is somehow irrelevant to your ability to then service the large amount of debt you’re proposing to take on, right? Just the opposite, in fact – lending agencies generally feel better about giving you large loans if you’re not already servicing small loans. A small loan that isn’t a problem in isolation may become one if you stretch your resources to cover a larger loan. This is like that. But the real howler here is the idea that the filtering system even worked in Amri’s case. Sure, it worked in the sense that it managed to correctly identify him as a problem – but arguing that the only reason it failed is because Tunisia is generally cagey about taking its shittier citizens back when you identify them as such is a really terrible argument for accepting Tunisians en masse. That’s a bit like sending your daughter to a drinking party at a frat that has a reputation for taking sexual advantage of drunk girls. If we know, already, that Tunisia can’t be trusted to take back citizens that are illegally in Germany, then Germany needs to keep the number of Tunisians admitted to a manageable level. Citizens of countries like – to put a fine point on it – Poland, where this is less of a problem, can be admitted more freely. It’s run-of-the-mill risk assessment, not rocket science.

  4. Treating muslims as a monolithic group plays into terrorists’ hands. That’s correct, as far as it goes. The problem is that this argument cuts both ways. Completely embracing muslims plays into terrorists’ hands too, by giving them an easy conduit to their pick of Western targets. This is the most sensitive part of this whole argument – because let’s be honest, a blanket ban on muslim immigration would probably work to dramatically lower the risk of these kinds of attacks. The question is down to a balancing act. Clearly muslim immigrants – at least from the Middle East and North Africa – are a risky group. Just as clearly, blanket bans on groups are antithetical to western values. There’s a conflict here, and there’s no easy way to resolve it. So, we have to keep calibrating, and this is hard work. What’s clear is that both extremes on this opposition are silly. Acting as though there isn’t a threat that’s highly correlated with Islam is willfully ignorant. As the article says "the truth NEVER goes away." That’s right, and that’s why it’s a complete waste of time for politicians to mouth bromides about Islam being a "religion of peace," or to remind us that "not all muslims are jihadist." These are, respectively, untrue and irrelevant, and everyone knows it. Islam is NOT a "religion of peace" – it’s actually quite an aggressive religion. And it hardly matters if "not all muslims are jihadists" so long as significant numbers of them are. The truth never goes away – and that goes for truths the Mirror likes as well as the ones it doesn’t. I agree that it’s unjust to treat all muslims as jihadists – they’re not. Only a minority of them are. And yet, it’s equally obvious to me that indulging in the fantasy that jihadists are somehow an insignificant minority doesn’t solve problems. There is a problem with Radical Islam, and the "Islam" part of that phrase is inalienable. So no, nothing about cautioning people that not all muslims are jihadists makes an argument for embracing Merkel’s immigration policy. Quite the contrary – any sober look at just how many muslims are jihadists and just how likely muslim immigrants are to radicalize and just how many jihadists are willing to pose as asylum-seekers in pursuit of their cause makes it clear why her immigration/asylum policy is misguided.

  5. Open societies don’t preemptively jail people for what they might do, only for what they do. Acting as though this is an issue raised by this incident is the one truly disingenuous argument in the piece. Let’s get this much out of the way: a prohibition on jailing people preemptively on mere suspicion is at the core of what I consider to be western values. It would be absolutely unacceptable to grant the government broad powers to start preemptively jailing people who merely seem likely to commit crimes. But of course, no one was actually advocating that in Amri’s case. Amri was not a German citizen and so had no inalienable right to be in Germany. The question wasn’t one of whether to arrest him and put him in jail, it was one of whether to send him back to Tunisia. Even the Mirror seems to agree that sending him back was the right course. So this whole argument is a red herring. Amri was a criminal. He’d been arrested several times for non-trivial violent crimes. And Amri didn’t have a right to be in Germany. Or Italy. The fact that he was in Europe illegally had already been determined by two separate European governments. Nothing about Amri’s case argues for preemptively arresting anyone, and I doubt that anyone serious is drawing such a conclusion from it. What Amri’s case demonstrates is that there are significant barriers to the police being able to do their job within the confines of the law. These barriers include that certain countries – Tunisia among them – are unwilling to shoulder their own burdens, and that practical, resource-based limits on the amount of immigration that can be reasonably tolerated in a given year exist.

Merkel’s immigration policy may have been motivated by the best of intentions, but it is a failure, and failures are things that rational people learn from. The effect of this policy has been to demonstrate why there need to be country-based limits on immigration. I am not German, but if I were, I would be comfortable with an almost unlimited amount of immigration from Poland, and extremely uncomfortable with a similar lack of limits on immigration from Tunisia and similar places. Far from arguing against that, Amri’s case shows why such restrictions are needed and just. Merkel herself seems to be in a place where she has learned this lesson but does not find it politically expedient to say so in public. Politicians are, after all, almost never incentivized to admit failure. Union2 should probably not run her as their Chancellor candidate again in 2017, and assuming they make it back into government (as I guess they will) they should reverse course on asylum seekers. Looked at carefully, Amri’s case is an illustration of why.


  1. by grabbing the wheel and steering the truck away from the crowd, right before he was shot to death (there’s no way to prove this is what happened, of course, but there’s some suggestive evidence)

  2. The permanent CDU/CSU coalition is often called "Union" as a shorthand in the German political press.

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