It’s cliché to say, even during these dire days, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But in a nation steeped in historical ignorance and enduring racism, it’s all too easy to slip back into darkness, as current events prove.
President Donald Trump’s “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” executive order signed on Friday is a shockingly shameful reminder of some of the worst xenophobic episodes in our nation’s history. The order blocks citizens of seven majority Muslim nations — currently Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia — from entering the US for at least 90 days. It partially fulfills the president’s campaign promises to ban all Muslim immigration and travel to the US, and to subject refugees from certain Muslim nations to “extreme vetting.” The order applies not only to immigrants, refugees and visitors from the banned countries, but also to legal permanent US residents — so-called green card holders — who hold passports from those nations. As many as half a million legal US residents will be blocked from returning from trips abroad.
The order went into effect immediately, sending shockwaves around the world. Refugees and travelers from the seven nations, including longtime legal US residents, were detained in airports around the nation or banned from boarding US-bound flights. It separated families. It sparked intense protests at airports in cities including New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.
President Trump explained the move as a counter-terrorism measure. “The visa issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States,” the executive order asserts. “Perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when… 19 foreign nationals went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans.”
Wait — 15 of those 19 foreign nationals were Saudi Arabian. Two were from the United Arab Emirates. The other two were from Egypt and Lebanon. None of those countries are on Trump’s banned list, despite known Saudi ties to Islamist terrorism and the horrific human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. In contrast, there have been no fatal terrorist attacks on American soil by immigrants from the seven banned countries. In fact, Americans are more likely to be killed by falling furniture or icicles, struck by lightning or shot dead by a toddler — or an American right-wing extremist — than murdered by a terrorist from any Muslim nation.
There is something the seven banned countries share in common — all of them have been bombed by the United States in the past 20 years, and six of the seven have been bombed or are currently being bombed in America’s endless war on terror. Even members of the US ruling elite have noted this deadly connection. “We bomb your country, creating a humanitarian nightmare, then lock you inside,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “That’s a horror movie, not a foreign policy.”
For sheer horror, few dark episodes in the history of humanity equal the Nazi Holocaust. As the horrors of Nazi Germany’s “final solution” to the “Jewish question” began in deadly earnest, the fate of Europe’s Jews was shockingly apparent to any US officials who listened to German leaders or even read German newspapers, like the leading Nazi daily Der Stürmer, which in 1941 proclaimed “now judgment has begun and it will reach its conclusion only when knowledge of the Jews has been erased from the earth.” But instead of opening its arms and ports to Jews fleeing certain death in Europe, the United States and other indifferent nations turned back shiploads of desperate Jewish refugees. Among the countless Jews denied refuge in the United States was a young Dutch teenager named Anne Franke who, along with almost her entire family, perished in Nazi death camps. Trump, by the way, failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism during his first presidential Holocaust Remembrance Day address — perhaps the president could also use a history lesson for this, and for banning refugees on such a day of somber commemoration.
It wasn’t just World War II; America has experienced shameful, bigoted bouts of xenophobia with nearly every new wave of immigrants who’ve settled upon its shores over the centuries. Refugees from Ireland and parts of Germany — the Catholic parts — were often brutally attacked as nativist parties including the Know Nothings rose to prominence in the mid-1800s. These newcomers in turn were often hostile to the Southern and Eastern Europeans who came after them, who then discriminated against the next wave of immigrants seeking sanctuary on our shores, and so on, with the pattern continuing to this very day.
Some would argue that those who made it to America were the lucky ones. When genocide raged through Rwanda in 1994, with hundreds of thousands of people shot, hacked, beaten or burned to death, more than two million refugees fled for their lives. The United States admitted less than 1,500 of them. Even more refugees fled Sudan as government and militia forces carried out a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur, yet only a few thousand Darfuris have been resettled in the United States. And while the US government gave itself a big pat on the back last year for reaching its paltry goal of resettling 10,000 of the nearly five million people who have fled Syria’s six-year civil war, other far smaller nations have done far more to help. Germany, with a quarter of America’s population, has taken in 100 times as many refugees. Tiny Lebanon, population 4.4 million, hosts more than a million Syrians — the demographic equivalent of the US accepting more than 75 million refugees!
This time, the United States isn’t rejecting refugees from other countries’ conflicts. It is slamming the door on the victims of wars it started or stoked, including many people whose lives are in danger because they collaborated with American invaders and occupiers who’ve turned their backs on those they once depended upon for their very survival. More than 15 years of ceaseless US-led war in Afghanistan have created some 2.7 million refugees, yet less than 1 percent of them have allowed into the country that ruined their lives.
How much of America’s refusal to help refugees can be chalked up to Islamophobia? Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment into the White House. Many of his cabinet picks have made blatantly Islamophobic statements, including national security adviser-in-waiting Mike Flynn, who called Islam a “vicious cancer to be excised,” likely attorney general Jeff Sessions, who called Islam a “toxic ideology,” Christian fundamentalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo and others. This is a nation, after all, into which European immigrants imported centuries-old Islamophobia, bigotry and racism that endure to this day among millions of Americans who believe Sharia law is an existential threat and Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Many Asian Americans are acutely aware of what happens when nativism, xenophobia and racism become official US policy. Chinese immigrants were victims of some of the most deadly mob violence in US history, and were later banned outright from entering the country. Japanese immigrants were imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. The majority of these men, women and children were American citizens. Perhaps this is why Japanese Americans — not known for being a boisterous bunch — have been among the most outspoken opponents of Trump’s policies, especially as Trump supporters cite Japanese internment as historical precedent and justification for those policies.
“Haven’t we learned something?” asked Helen Yasuda, age 84, who was a little girl when her California family was rounded up and shipped to a concentration camp in Arkansas for the duration of the war, in response to Trump’s proposed Muslim registry. “Can’t they see what’s wrong? We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes.”
Apparently we haven’t. Americans aren’t very good at learning from our mistakes, as our past history and current events prove. We are living through one of those periods future history textbooks will hold up as a cautionary tale of what happens when nativist bigotry trumps humanist compassion. And if you’re one of those people who always wondered how you would’ve acted if you’d been around to witness the nascent days of Nazism, or when Japanese Americans were being rounded up and interned in concentration camps, well, here’s your chance to stand on the right side of history and do your part to help close this latest shameful chapter in the voluminous book of American nativist injustice.