More violence, more death. Beirut was long known as “the Paris of the Middle East,” and after the events of November 2015, those two cities are linked more strongly than ever.
Almost as troubling as the violence itself is the public discussion about how to respond. I don’t particularly mean the question of how to confront those who orchestrated this recent terror. Although too many pundits are expressing themselves with too much confidence on this subject, there’s a legitimate conversation underway about what road to take. All paths forward are uncertain, and any number of them may be equally effective or appropriate.
I’m talking, rather, about the public response to the humanitarian crisis that’s spreading in the wake of this violence. Millions of innocents have been bombed, burned, and gassed out of their homes, but many of us in the United States want to treat them as we would the men who set those bombs and fires. Governors are overstepping their authority to declare their territory off limits to Middle Eastern immigrants. One leading presidential candidate has referred to Syrian refugees as “rabid dogs,” and another wants the names of American Muslims to be put on a registry like the one the Nazis used for Jews. A mayor on the opposite side of the political aisle has suggested that the current situation warrants internment camps like the ones that unjustly held Japanese-Americans during WWII.
Cued by this rhetoric, regular citizens are saying even worse things. The river of social media is more polluted than usual, fouled by despicable commentary about refugees and what should or shouldn’t be done to help them. Makes me think, as most things do, of literature, in this case the 400-year-old play “Sir Thomas More.” As far as we know, it was never performed, though at least five different writers tried to get it past the Elizabethan censors–the original manuscript is a jumble of revisions and edits in different hands.
The speech below is spoken by the title character as he faces down a rioting mob that seeks “the removing of the strangers” (i.e. foreign immigrants) from London, and it was likely written by William Shakespeare.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and co[a]sts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Not all of the internet has become a Facebook feed frenzy for ravenous fishes. Last year’s National Book Award winner for fiction, the former Marine and Iraqi War veteran Phil Klay, shared some sanity and humanity via Twitter. I’ve lightly edited his separate tweets to allow his words to flow:
Tremendously upset by attempt to effectively close our borders to Syrian refugees by imposing impossible-to-implement screening standards. When I swore my oath of office as a Marine officer, I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The Marine hymn claims that Marines are the “first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean.” You’re not supposed to risk your life just for the physical safety of American citizens, you’re supposed to risk your life for American ideals as well.
This shouldn’t be a left-right issue. Ronald Reagan, who believed that America was the exceptional nation, the “Shining City on a Hill,” asked himself during his farewell address from the Oval Office how that Shining City fared, answering: “After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm, and she’s still a beacon; still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home.” Millions of pilgrims are hurtling through the darkness, but it’s Germany that has recently been the beacon standing strong and true, welcoming them home, not America.
If we want to be the kind of nation that others will follow, the kind of nation capable of forging strong links in the Muslim world against extremism, then we have to behave like that kind of nation. I get that people are scared. But it’s only during frightening times when you get to find out if your country really deserves to call itself the “home of the brave.”
I don’t know if we deserve to call ourselves that, but I know what those refugees deserve, and it’s better than they’ve been getting so far.
James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books in Mercer Island, WA, and is a regular contributor to nwbooklovers.