Turning Away Refugees

Human nature, I suppose. People are strange when you’re a stranger.

Strangers in an insular community can become isolated. When there are a lot of strangers, and all of them are strange in upbringing, language, culture, or religion, that strangeness can become menacing.

When Henryk went missing, his parents were frantic. He was only nine, not allowed outside beyond late evening. It was way past late evening and he wasn’t home. Then it became late night, then later. When he wasn’t home by morning, his distraught parents were in near panic. His father went to the police. Morning became afternoon, then another evening. Police began to search in earnest. Another night wore on and became morning.

When Henryk got home, his clothes were a shambles, torn. The tearful, traumatized youngster had obviously been beaten. He told his parents and the police what had happened.

Immigrants, refugees had taken him from the street into the building that housed 160 of them. The basement served as a sort of torture chamber. As he was sexually abused, he saw the bodies of other children in varying stages of dismemberment. It was horrible.

Police marched toward the building. A group of onlookers became curious. When they found out what had happened to the little boy, the rage spread like fire. The group became a crowd. The crowd became a mob. The mob demanded blood. Guns appeared. The first shot into the building emboldened others and more shots were fired.

In the end, 20 Jewish refugees were beaten to death, and another 22 were shot and killed, 40 more were injured, in the little town of Kielce in Poland, that July night in 1946. Those Jews had only recently been rescued before they could be put to death by Nazi executioners at Auschwitz. They had escaped death from Nazis only to have their lives taken by an angry mob.

The little boy grew up. It took 50 years for him grow up enough to admit that he had made up the story. He had been out all night and invented the tale of torture avoid being punished for breaking the rules.

50 years.

But in 1946, it did not take even 50 minutes after the massacre for investigators to reach that same conclusion.

None of the story made sense. There were no other missing children. The torture chamber in the basement of the building did not exist. In fact the building did not even have a basement.

But it was easy for local folks to believe that refugees were guilty of horrible crimes. After all, they were different in so many ways. Why would they conform to rules and morality that governed the lives of ordinary people?

The mantra after the Nazi genocide that was directed, not exclusively but mostly, at Jews became “Never again.”

As with all heartfelt resolutions, “Never again” turned out to be vulnerable to time and history.

Americans who know even a little of that history will not feel superior to the Christian residents of that little town across the ocean. Americans participated in Nazi genocide only indirectly, but that single degree of separation still provides a measure of shame to any real American patriot.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC holds an annual ceremonial reading of names. 5 thousand names are read each year. It would take too long to read the names of the six million Jews that were killed in Europe. It would take even longer to add the names of 5 million non-Jews who were killed en masse.

This year, the solemn ceremony was extended to the internet as names were posted every 5 seconds. The twitter campaign focused on one incident. A ship, the SS St. Louis, filled with Jews fleeing Nazi extermination, was turned away by our country. Americans were in no mood to take in foreign refugees.

The internet campaign had no shortage of reminders.

A smiling little boy looks out from a cheerful photograph. The caption carries the message.

A happy little girl, chin resting on hands, appears in another picture.

When the SS St. Louis was turned away, the official reason was national security. Some of those Jews might be dangerous, might even be terrorists. Seems absurd today. It was a deadly decision for those on the SS St. Louis.

The list continues.

Max Wolff

Regina Blumenstein

Walter Weinberg

Amanda Wachtel

Abraham Wolf

The wording is similar in each case. “The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered…” followed by the location of the execution.

During the 2016 Presidential race, Donald Trump’s rhetoric became increasingly focused on those who try to escape what, by comparison, might be called mini-Holocausts of today. They must not seem like mini-Holocausts to those who are affected. In the final hours of the campaign, he directed violent anger toward small communities of refugees in Minnesota who had escaped death from extremist violence in Somalia.

Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS…

It is wrong to blame entire populations for the actions of a few. America at its best is not founded on collective guilt. But even if ethnic or religious groups could be assigned communal guilt, refugees in the United States would still be innocent. As in Kielce in 1946, the accusations against refugees in the United States today are false.

The number of Americans killed by terrorism would be too high if that number was even one.

The number actually killed by refugees is zero. Investigation of each refugee is conducted intensely and carefully. The average vetting time is two years.

But, as in Kielce that terrible night, the moral prohibition against collective guilt means little to those who are enraged, afraid, or simply consumed by hatred.

And, as in Kielce, the morally neutral truth of collective innocence means even less.

On the very day of annual remembrance of the Holocaust, the new President of the United States issued an executive order barring refugees from seven majority Muslim countries.

The order had a clever provision, allowing exceptions to be made for those who belong to minority religions. It was another way of saying selective exceptions could apply to non-Muslims from those countries. Muslims were to remain special targets.

The number of attacks by any immigrant from those seven countries, refugee or not, Muslim or not, is zero.

Since 9/11, no one has been killed in this country in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from any of the seven countries.

William C. Banks,
  Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism

It is to America’s credit that so many people have appeared at airports and other public places peaceably to assemble in protest at the targeting of the vulnerable, those in physical danger, those guilty of nothing more than the primal desire for survival.

Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates refused to defend the executive order against court challenges until she could examine it to see if the order was legally defensible.

At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities, nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.

Her reasoning was sound, using some of the same logic employed by conservatives in other settings. In one voting rights case after another, conservatives have defended laws that discriminate against minorities, holding that the discrimination itself was not sufficient reason to reject those laws. It must be proven, they say, that there was clear intent to discriminate. And, without public statements or private records, it is not possible to prove what was in the legislative mind.

We can imagine the nudges and winks that go with that argument.

The Acting Attorney General announced that she would have to examine the same record that courts would look at, including public statements of intent. Statements like this:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…

Donald Trump, December 7, 2015

When the courts look at exceptions that would apply only to minority religions from majority Muslim countries, will they decide that this was a cute way to avoid saying the ban will only apply to Muslims? Is there any way to argue otherwise?

The administration fired the Acting Attorney General and issued a statement condemning her.

The statement was notable for it’s vitriol, beginning with the very first sentence:

The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.

The statement continued the attack.

Ms. Yates is an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.

It was a remarkably emotional, angry declaration of termination.

A replacement has been named, the ban will be enforced.

The refugees being targeted are guilty of trying to survive.

But they are strangers.
And strangers are strange.

We are told to transform our nation into a small village in Poland, hurling false accusations against innocent refugees.

We are directed back to our own shores in 1939 to turn away a ship carrying those who need us, whose only hope is that someone will allow them refuge.

We are instructed to give up our own hope of becoming the shining city on the hill we once dreamed of becoming.

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1 thought on “Turning Away Refugees”

  1. “They must not seem like mini-Holocausts to those who are affected.”

    And to many of those who are not affected, they must seem like nothing.

    I wonder how different our country’s attitude would be toward war, other countries, refugees, etc. if we had had more “humbling moments,” e.g. wars with other countries on our own soil, complete with atrocities against civilians across the land. (Pearl Harbor and 9/11 just aren’t the same sort of experience, small and brief and geographically limited as they are in comparison.) Would we be less inclined to make enemies, rattle our sabers, and turn away the innocent? Would we be more understanding of other countries’ woes?

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