There is a moment in the film The Promise—about the Armenian genocide—when the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire goes to meet a Turkish official to seek the release of an imprisoned American reporter. As they speak, the ambassador comments on the plight of the Armenians, who are being killed by the Ottomans. The official wonders if the ambassador’s sympathies come from his being Jewish. The ambassador responds that he is Jewish, and he is American, and America is a nation of refugees.
At that moment, you have to take a breath. The United States is a nation of refugees, not immigrants. If we wish to hold on to a founding myth, that the people who came to Plymouth Rock were seeking religious freedom, then we have to say they were refugees. They fled persecution for their religious beliefs. And that history of persecution, because of natural human difference, has not gone away.
Too often, we try to forget our histories of genocide. It is too gruesome to remember that the Aborigines of Tasmania no longer exist, or that the Atlantic slave trade perpetrated unspeakable horrors. Even when we memorialize recent and catastrophic events like the Holocaust, Bosnia, or Rwanda, it is with a shake of our heads and the wonder that people could let this happen.
It helps us to think we are neither the perpetrators nor victims of genocide, and we never will be. Yet, as the Rohingya are being cleansed from their ancestral land, as Syrian children are washed up like refuse on beaches, we still do not acknowledge the lesson that it takes millions to remain silent for genocide to be possible.
We may not carry out genocide, but we enable it. If, in the historical record, we were to read of a politician who said that he will not help “orphans under the age of five,” because he was scared of their religion, we would be aghast. We would rightfully wonder how this person came to power and why those who elected him did not remove him from office. Yet, when a presidential candidate for the United States and sitting governor of New Jersey says this, we shrug our shoulders and call it “politics.”
Collectively, we are comfortable condemning the mistakes of the past, but never learning from them. As we turn Syrian refugees away, advocates for human decency pointed out that today’s refugee crisis had echoes to the Jewish refugee crisis of the early 20th century. Critics responded that the situation was different: those were Jews and these are not; that was in the 20th century and this is the 21st century. We note every difference to avoid taking action, and always condemn the mistakes of the past in the same way, because they are the same mistakes.
During World War I, Ambassador Morgenthau offered a clear moral commitment, based on his faith and nationality, that “our people will never forget these massacres.” To be great was not a rhetorical flourish, but a deeply ethical response to an unfolding crisis.
Yet today, as we witness a new genocide of the Syrian people conducted by the government that is supposed to protect them, we are blocking any rescue of them. We look at the weakest members of society, the most vulnerable, and we see them as a threat.
As limited as the refugee program was under the Obama administration, with its limited numbers, extended vetting process, and minimal financial support, it was an attempt to recognize that Americans are generous and responsible. The current policy of letting no one into the country says that we are neither.
When we say that we do not want people to come and help us realize that vision of a greater country, we mean that what we think is not worth anything. Something of value is always shared, unless we choose to say we are greedy. To turn away refugees, from anywhere, at anytime, but particularly when they are fleeing from a mess we helped to create, is to diminish their humanity and our own.
It is hard to argue that we are the home of the brave, when we are in fear of the powerless. A society that lives in fear cannot be the land of the free.
The film The Promise, reminds us that a hundred years ago, an American ambassador, who had no connection to the Armenian people, stood for American ideals in front of one of the world’s great powers. Today, after our invasion of Iraq led to the creation of Daesh, and after our silence in the face of murderous actions emboldened the Asad regime, we are intimately linked to the death of Syrians. Yet, we take no responsibility. We offer no aid. We simply offer a policy that says to the world, “there is no greatness here.”