President Donald Trump has been busy during his first week. The speed of his executive orders, and the confidence with which he has signed plans to build a wall, and to replace ObamaCare with… something else has been shocking, considering how shellshocked he looked when he actually won. Trump also followed through on his campaign promises – or threats, if you prefer – to ban refugees from nations "of particular concern," if his apparent draft executive order is to be believed.
Which nations are included in that list? Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Let’s see, the US played both sides in Syria, helped it destabilize, bombed it; they completely took over Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; they helped stage a coup in Iran, not to mention helped Iraq use chemical weapons on its soldiers and shot down one of its passenger planes in the 1980s; the US invaded Libya and overthrew its leader; and it sent drones to Somalia and Sudan, while bombing a pharmaceutical plant in the latter for good measure. Yemen it has also sent drones to, and its buddy Saudi Arabia is currently bombing and starving their population.
There is not a nation on that list that the US doesn’t owe something to. But because people are terrified of terrorism, now, now is the time to say sorry, but we’re closed, huddled masses. We’re all filled up, and we’re starting that isolationist thing now – not by removing all troops from abroad, or stopping drone strikes, but by saying we can’t trust the people from the countries we broke.
According to The Washington Post, "If authorized, the executive action would temporarily block visas from seven countries for 30 days and suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days." This isn’t a sweeping ban on refugees forever, but it’s a nasty, cowardly policy. If America breaks a country, many hawks believe it has to stay (endlessly) in order to "fix it" somehow, with more troops, and more bombing campaigns – then building the nation back up. The correct response to making refugees, however, is to let them emigrate to your country as recourse. (Especially ones who were told that helping America was the thing to do.) After a security check, fine, but not one that will leave them in the lurch while America trembles forever in an exaggerated fear of terrorism.
Terrorist attacks are not outside the realm of possibility, though they remain a rare risk compared to heart disease, cancer, and slipping in your bathtub. However, the most recent attacks in San Bernardino, CA and the Pulse nightclub in Florida were not performed by immigrants. Both of these alleged killers were born in America.
Unless Americans are ready to ban certain religions, strip citizenship for suspicious behavior, destroy what remains of privacy, and to hand over even more freedom to the imperial security state, there isn’t much that they can do to prevent lone wolf attacks; much like there’s not a lot they can do to stop school, workplace, or other shootings and violence, no matter their motivation. A society with freedom contains the capacity for bloodshed by individual actors. Law is a clunky took that rarely stops those determined to do violence, but often hinders peaceful people from working, moving, or living their lives.
Most refugees who are considered such a problem today are risking so much because they’re fleeing from war zones that the US helped create. Individual residents of the US may not owe something to those people (though if they backed George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, and other warhawks, perhaps they do). However, before the day comes that the people take Cheney’s wealth and hand it over to a nice Iraqi family, the US has no business banning immigration from countries it ruined.
Friday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Too often comparing alarming leaders or dictators to Hitler, or every tragedy to the Holocaust has dulled many people’s reaction to the horror of that genocidal campaign. However, even if we think we know the story, most of us were not presented with the chapters where the US failed a desperate people who were in mortal peril. The world mostly failed the Jews, in fact. And not, as some myths go, because people weren’t aware of what was being done by the Nazis. People knew, and they spent years thinking that someone should really do something about it. Mostly, they didn’t.
A twitter account named after the SS St. Louis has been dutifully tweeting out names and photos, when possible, of passengers on that famous vessel packed with Jewish refugees who were refused entry to both the US, Canada, and Cuba in 1939. About a quarter of the 900-plus passengers later died in Nazi camps. The US turned away the ship because it was politically awkward, and because President Franklin Roosevelt was not willing to risk reelection in 1940 just to prevent the loss of a few immigrant lives.
Worse still was the later decision to prevent some 20,000 children fleeing the Holocaust from coming into the US. After all, even little kids could carry the germ of Bolshevism, or perhaps, as others argued, refugees would be made to spy for Nazi Germany if they still had imperiled relatives back in their home countries. The easiest thing to do was not to commit to anything except a savage war until it was too late. Flatten Dresden, killed 100,000 in order to knock out the railroads for a few days? Fine. That’s how we’re fighting this war. Somehow fire storming the enemy (and the civilians who dwell next door to him) was reasonable while saving refugee children wasn’t. We haven’t shook off this attitude today.
The exception to this moral failure was the effective, though extremely late War Refugee Board, which helped to fund the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Just imagine if that had started in 1933, instead of more than a decade later. Just imagine if, say, the US hadn’t admitted fewer immigrants from imperiled countries than the quotas allowed during those most dangerous years. What if they had cared enough to, say, welcome them to Alaska, as a Michael Chabon novel imagines (based on a fanciful idea that never went anywhere in real life)?
Sure, not everything is the Holocaust. As bad as Syria is, it’s not a concerted effort to kill an entire minority group, just an appallingly brutal war between multiple, murderous factions, with millions caught in the middle. And yet, in November 2015, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suggested that even Kindergarten-aged orphans from Syria were not safe to welcome into the land that helpfully placed the Statue of Liberty in the port that million and millions of immigrant passed through, it was difficult not to remember that unwillingness to save even the Jewish children in 1940.
And though you can argue that the Treaty of Versailles eventually lead to Hitler, and therefore the US at least plays a part in the blame, more importantly, it would have been easy to simply open the doors, and to save people. The US didn’t.
"Humanitarian" hawks always think that this time, this time we have to bomb and save the oppressed group. Welcoming the people, letting them come here, and to start their lives again, to teach them about secular values, and pluralistic freedom, that idea never seems to be as convincing as war or drones.
There’s never going to be a good time to pull all US troops out of the world. It’s got to be done sometime, however. It is, however, laughably cruel to declare that now, if now is the time for Trumpian "isolationism," we’re really withdrawing from the world, and that begins with letting the refugees we created survive on their own. It’s not our problem. We can bomb their cities, but we can’t help them, that’s too dangerous.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.