Even in the typically self-absorbed and America-centric American press, the magnitude of the migrant crisis sweeping Europe has been the top story lately. There is something about a throng of humanity camping out in a train station because of being bureaucratically stuck, or piled dead in the back of a van because of being under-ventilated, that manages to capture the attention of most of the compassionate. And while Europe’s Schengen Zone has been built to be more accommodating to poor, tired, and huddled masses yearning for employment, the sheer quantity of suffering people has found, to quote a phrase, a higher pitch and broader scale.
There are a handful of migrants from Turkey and occasionally another country. But the top three, far and away, the nations that virtually everyone in this slow-moving morass of people piled up in Budapest or Calais or at the psychological gates of Germany are from: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
This is the US on the basketball court sticking up a sheepish hand. “My bad!”
Except, of course, we don’t. That’s not the way we do things in the US. Mitsubishi sent a team of executives to officially apologize for benefiting from the imprisoned labor of prisoners of war during World War II, finding a last survivor to sincerely admit guilt to. Nation-states have apologized for genocides, bombings, and other atrocities committed by previous regimes. Yet the United States, who has not even had a regime change since any of our many brutalities to fellow humans, peacefully transferring power in a direct line from genocidiers and slavers, firebombers and nuclear-bombers, we do not apologize. We, as a nation, are never sorry. Sorry is for suckers.
No wonder Donald Trump is halfway to being President in the national imagination. He is the embodiment of the American ego, ripped from the nation itself and implanted in one single person.
So it’s also little wonder that we’re not even whispering some responsibility for what, until recently, would have been called a refugee crisis. It’s unclear to me whether this rebranding is for the sake of the dignity of migrants – refugee becoming a little too tattered a word to describe actual people – or whether it’s a way of minimizing their desperation and suffering, though that’s hard to do when a makeshift raft of these beleaguered people sinks twice a week on the high seas. But make no mistake, when you hear the stories of this level of sheer torrid struggle and hope against hope: we did this. America created this reality.
Having a war rain down on your homeland is not an ideal circumstance. It is arguably far more devastating, destructive, and damaging than the most brutal and oppressive regime that you can imagine. Say what you will about the secrecy, idolatry, and lack of freedom of the North Korean regime, but at least most everyone in the society is intact from day to day, as are their houses, families, and places of work and leisure. Or put it another way – take the top five or ten most oppressive countries in the world and the most self-aware people in each of those countries (to solve for the “brainwashing” question). Then offer those people a choice: would you rather live here, as you do, or move directly to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria? If more than 5% of people chose door #2, I’d be shocked. And if fewer than 95% of that 5% regretted the choice after actually seeing the status quo in said nations, I’d be really shocked.
Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. The Taliban was repressive. America still basically ruined the life of every man, woman, and child in those countries. For over a decade and counting.
Think about the level of fear, hopelessness, and anguish that would lead you to get on a boat that could easily sink, then get in a van that could easily suffocate you, then camp in a train station indefinitely, and to make a series of these risky and questionable choices over and over again. Can you even picture it? The predator at your back would have to be so fierce and tenacious that you would be willing to take almost any heedless act. We did that. We did that to these people. Us. The US.
Syria’s the exception, you say? You’ll concede that the places we bombed to the stone age, then raided house-to-house for years before being confused why killing everyone who disagreed with us kept manufacturing more people who disagreed with us and giving up – you’ll concede that those places may bear our responsibility. But not Syria! We have barely even started bombing Syria!
Well, uh, we created ISIS. And I think we can all agree that ISIS has something to do with why Syria is unlivable right now, though admittedly not all of it. The rest of it probably is related to the government there we used to prop up, or the rebels against it that we are now arming. Leaving a country alone has never really been a reasonable option. The US always knows best, taking sides, making kings, picking winners and losers, all to the benefit of our own people. After all, it doesn’t end up being our train stations that flood with suffering humanity, our vans found packed with corpses, our tax dollars at work trying to get people a better life. We are perfectly placed on the planet to lob a thousand interventions from way downtown, but be far enough away to not really be impacted when things go, as they inevitably do, south.
Yes, Mr. Trump, we are not far away from Mexico. You are right, and for that we have an agriculture industry. Build your wall and deport everyone and see how long people in this country can eat.
You know what, America? You don’t have to say you’re sorry. It would be nice, it would be civil, it would be the human thing to do. But it’s cool, there’s such a long list of things to apologize for, to reconsider, that it’s okay if this doesn’t make the cut. Here’s what I want you to do instead. Just think about what you’ve done. Think about how this happened, how your wars and bombs and drones and aggression created all this. Think about what’s going on in Yemen, where the next wave of migrants is already coming from as the infrastructure there returns to medieval levels. Think about what you keep doing, all over the globe, and maybe… just maybe, stop.
Like any unruly id, it’s hard for the US to really internalize that other people, their homes and lives and feelings, are just as real as they are. That’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism ruling the roost here at home. The secretly harbored feeling that we are the only people who truly matter, or at least we matter most. But it’s not true. Every resident of that train station matters just as much as you do, Mr. Trump. And if we’re not going to take responsibility for those souls, at least we can maybe save the next generation from the next possible target country, and decide to live and let live instead.