This past September I had a chance to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the Smithsonian museums near the National Mall in Washington, DC. From the subject matter you can pretty much guess it’s not going to be a particularly light trip, but it’s an intense, moving experience for all who visit, and I’m sure even more so for people who are more directly affected by the Holocaust than me.
The museum is laid out linearly: you enter through the atrium, take an elevator up to the top floor, then slowly and chronologically work your way down through history before finishing back in the atrium. Visiting that afternoon in September, I took in the atmosphere around me as we made our way into the exhibits. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the crowd milling around the security lines outside the building was cheerful, most of them tourists having enjoyed a pleasant day so far in Washington, DC. As we made our way inside, it got a little quieter, but mostly because people were simply admiring the beautiful architecture of the atrium and trying to get their bearings and figuring out where to get started. But as we stepped into the elevator to go up to the top floor, the atmosphere changed. It seemed like everyone was more nervous, almost afraid of what we were about to walk into. And as we stepped out of the elevator, everyone went silent.
One week ago yesterday, terrorists attacked six sites in Paris, France. They killed at least 130 people, injured almost three times as many, and like the cowards they are, most of them committed suicide via explosive vest. Still recovering from the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January, France was forced into a state of emergency and, with the threat against them still very real, is grappling with tough questions on how much of their freedoms they’re willing to surrender in the name of security.
Some of the attackers claimed that the attacks were in response to French involvement in the Syrian conflict. Some of them were even from Syria or had fought in Syria, but every single one of the attackers were a direct result of the Syrian conflict, which has strangled Syria and the surrounding regions since the Arab Spring in 2011. While other nations like Egypt and Tunisia also had revolutions, they’ve since installed new governments (for better or worse) and are stable countries today. Syria hasn’t been so lucky: its Arab Spring never ended, the conflict has raged for four years and counting and the UN estimates that 220,000 people have died as of January 2015. Worse yet, there aren’t just two sides, and the side that’s winning right now is ISIS, capitalizing on the Syrian government’s inability to control its own territory.
It’s certainly not an enviable situation for anybody, but it’s worst for citizens of Syria, who have traded in a puppet democracy for a lawless wasteland. The UN has estimated that the Syrian conflict has created over 4,000,000 refugees. Just to put that number in perspective: it’d be as if some crisis in the US forced every single person who lives in the state of Oregon to resettle somewhere else, taking with them what they can carry on their backs.
Imagine you lived in that Oregon and you were suddenly forced to leave everything behind and find a new place to live. Then imagine that the governors of 29 other states have categorically rejected you, without ever knowing you, who you are, if you have a husband or wife, or if you have kids.
Most of the blame here lies with the pro-Assad forces who have reputedly used chemical weapons against their own citizens in order to retain power, as well as with ISIS who indiscriminately slaughter their own brothers and sisters to bring about the end of the world. But the US and its allies aren’t blameless here: the collective apathy towards the Syrian conflict to this point has been appalling, and no one should have been surprised that the security black hole created by the Allies abruptly leaving Iraq was exploited by terrorists looking for a wider foothold. But even if the US was completely faultless, we have a responsibility as humans to help. And based on what I saw that afternoon in the Holocaust Museum, I think most Americans would agree with me.
More than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s such a well-known number that I think we lose perspective on it sometimes, but the museum emphasizes that these were individuals who were murdered, not just massive, faceless groups of people. There’s one room that you walk through twice because it stretches for two stories, and it’s lined floor to ceiling with pictures of ordinary people in a single Jewish village that was simply wiped out. People. Real people, with livelihoods, families, and communities simply eradicated, and tragically only a small fraction of the total lives lost in the Holocaust.
The other thing the museum emphasizes is that while the US was obviously not the instigator, we weren’t blameless, we weren’t helpless and we weren’t ignorant. We simply didn’t do very much to help these people. By the time the US entered the war in 1941, our closest ally Great Britain had been at war for more than two years without our support, and the concentration camps had been open for more than 8 years, the Jews had been persecuted even longer.
I saw this poll on Twitter earlier this week:
It’s certainly true that the Allies weren’t fully aware of the extent of Jewish persecution until there were boots on the ground in occupied Europe. But the way the Jewish members of Congress voted in this poll indicates that they knew there was persecution, and they knew who was being targeted. And notice how passive this poll question is: it’s not “should we drop the 101st Airborne into a concentration camp on a rescue mission”, it was merely “if these refugees show up at our doors, should we open them?”.
Only God knows what would have happened had we been more welcoming to those refugees. It’s possible that we wouldn’t have saved anyone, that no one would have made it or that we’d have lost more of our own soldiers as a consequence of an open doors policy. But it’s also possible, and I’d say probable, that we could have saved thousands.
As we walked through the museum that afternoon, I thought I perceived that in addition to feeling the sheer tragedy of all those lives lost, the visitors that day were wondering if we could have done more, if we should have done more. And I have the feeling that if you asked them now if we should accept some of the Syrian refugees, they’d be more open to it.
I know it’s not as simple as opening up more immigration booths and letting more people in. I know that it’s a complex security problem with many potential pitfalls, not to mention the issues that would come about from integrating people completely unfamiliar with America into our society. But to see people of this country, especially governors and congressmen, reject them outright without even a conversation is incredibly disheartening and suggests that we haven’t learned from our past.
There’s a quote that appears in several places in the holocaust museum, which is incredibly convicting and incredibly relevant again:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemöller
It’s time we stop pretending this crisis isn’t ours. It is ours, but it’s not because we’re Americans; it’s ours because we’re humans. The people who live and work in the United States of America are among the smartest and most creative in the world. The problems we’re working on, the problems we routinely solve are among the most complex that history has ever known. The problem of how to resettle four million Syrian refugees certainly qualifies as complex, but it’s worth it. Ronald Reagan liked to refer to America as a “shining city on a hill”. Let’s show the world we’re worthy of that title.