On the day after the White House temporarily halted its inhumane and un-Christian “zero-tolerance” policy of separating families and transporting children, including infants and toddlers, to internment camps along the America-Mexico border and elsewhere across the country, I was sitting at a local diner here in the Midwest having breakfast, when I overheard three angry men talking about the policy and illegal immigration. I had seen them before. They were regulars. What I heard was chilling.
“They’re criminals,” said one of the men sitting at the booth drinking coffee and eating donuts. “They broke the law. That means they are criminals.”
“Yeah,” replied one of the other men. “They come here to steal and rape and murder us.”
It sounded like a line right out of The Handbook for Inciting Fear in the Populace, a line used extensively during the 2016 elections to frighten people and to sway their votes.
I was horrified when the third man slammed his empty coffee cup on the table and joined in the conversation.
“They should all be lined up and shot!” he said. “Hell, I’ll do it myself. Just line ‘em up and shoot them all dead. Even the kids. That’s what they deserve for coming here and breaking our laws.”
I don’t know what they said after that. Sick to my stomach, I got up and left without finishing my breakfast and coffee, too afraid to say a word to them. That’s the America we have inherited since the election: A Nation of Fear.
It is mentalities such as theirs that made me want to write a blog for The Charter for Compassion. I thought my voice could make a difference. I thought I could be a light in the darkness. I love that saying that a single candle can light a million other candles without diminishing its own brilliance. But over the past two years, I have come to realize that nothing I say will change a single mind or affect a single heart. Men like those three will never read this article. No friend of theirs will ever forward it to them.
The question I have to ask is from where does such hatred come? Nazis harbored the same kind of racist fear and hatred. They too masked their fear behind nationalism, cloaked their hate with their flag. In Germany’s desperation to get rid of those individuals who they thought didn’t belong in their country, they rounded up men, women, and children, and shot them, just as that Midwest man said he would do personally, given the chance. Or, as trainloads of Jewish detainees arrived at internment camps, women and young children (and the aged and infirm) were immediately separated from their families and gassed and incinerated in the ovens that never ceased (Photo: Jewish women from the Mizocz Ghetto in the Ukraine, some holding infants as they are forced to wait in a line before being executed by Germans and Ukrainian collaborators.)
It is worth taking a moment here to point out the irrationality of their logic. These three men would say that these families, including women and children, are criminals because they broke our law, which states that immigrants must enter the United States only at specified locations. I concede the fact. But does the transgression justify killing the offender, including infants and children?
The truth is, trying to enter America illegally is a misdemeanor, like jay-walking, failing to pay your parking tickets (a scofflaw), or getting caught watering your lawn late at night during a posted draught. The punishment for this misdemeanor is typically $10. Ten dollars! (USA Today, June 22-24, 2018, 1A) Parking in a handicapped parking zone or driving without seatbelts can cost $250 in some states. A speeding ticket (also a misdemeanor) can cost hundreds of dollars. Americans like these three men would round up and murder entire families for a crime whose violation is less than the cost of a parking ticket.
Men such as these never wonder about these families and why they are coming to America. Although they would almost certainly call themselves Christian (as seventy percent of all Americans say they are), they seem unaware of the fact that almost everyone in Mexico, Central, and South America are devout Catholics. These women are escaping to safety for the sake of their children. They are running for their lives. And in their desperate journey, they must avoid rape and abduction into the sex slave trade. Many women making the journey have been found buried in mass graves, their organs harvested and put on ice in coolers to sell to the flourishing medical transplant industry.
A dozen times a day these women pray to God for safe passage to America. They pray to the same God, who, so says the Bible, gave his only Son to the world—a son who himself was a child immigrant journeying across another desert as he and his family sought asylum in Egypt to escape the threat of death by King Herod—and it is American Christians who would turn them away and send them back toward rape or death. It is American Christians such as those three men who would line them up and execute them when their only real crime is being different.
These people are not “animals.” They are not “infestations.” These are the dehumanizing labels that the Nazis used to describe Jews leading up to the most heinous atrocity in history. These desperate immigrants are human beings who love their children every bit as much as you love yours. They are the neighbors Jesus admonished us to love as we love ourselves. Where is our compassion? Where is our mercy? The difference between today and all those terrible yesterdays is a thin red line—so thin, in fact, we may not recognize when we have crossed it.
John Smelcer is the author of more than fifty books, including his most recent novel, Kiska, based on the true story of how the United States wrongfully interned almost one thousand Alaska Natives during WWII. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he interviewed many of the survivors.