What makes America exceptional? It is not our might and power. Many empires have attained glory at the tip of the sword or the lance, but that does not make them the exception to the rule. It is not some concept of ethnic unity. Many powers have waxed and waned in the civilizational dusk of ethnic exclusivity. No, it is our compassion that makes us exceptional.
At the close of the second World War, the barbaric extent of the Holocaust became clearer to the American public. Thinking back on the ships of Jews rejected at American ports and how legislation to allow 20,000 extra visas to Jewish children from Germany was gleefully rejected by the House, American public opinion toward victims fleeing violence began to shift.
These were the roots of modern American refugee policy. But the lessons have begun to fade. The guilt of complicity in the face of death of our fellow human beings has lost its bite. The sharp edges of the price of complacency have become dull. But now, in the face of a new rejection of innocent people fleeing chaos and war that we arguably seeded, we need to reconsider our humanity and compassion. We need to stop thinking of refugees as strange foreigners who mean to do us harm, because they do not. Instead, we need to cage and shelve our fears and consider the plight of these individuals before rejecting their pleas for asylum out of hand.
It is high time we walk not a mile, but a hundred miles, in the shoes of these people. It is high time that we wear their shoes, that we feel the coarseness of their clothes, that we pace the cracked earth. It is high time we feel in our mouths the caustic, bitter taste of defeat and loss, when a chance of freedom written upon a visa is declared null and void. It is high time our shoulders buckle under the weight of all that could have been and we tell our children life will not be changing, the tapestries of woven dreams were all for naught, and they may as well be tossed aside to the dustbin of abandoned beliefs and dashed hopes.
It is by wearing these clothes, breathing this air, and feeling these aches in our bones that we reconnect with those whose footsteps paved a way for our life of comfort today. Our ancestors came to this land, huddled together on ships, storm-tossed and forced to abandon what was once home. Once our own forebears were foreign, other, and not deserving to cross the threshold at Ellis Island. Our grandmothers and grandfathers were once just too Catholic, or wore clothes that were strange, or expressed love and disgust and fear and aspiration with words that were not understood.
Despite all of this strangeness, they stayed here. They withstood the test of xenophobia and hate, and they flourished. And through their trials, they have constructed what we know as America today. They constructed the shining city upon the hill, the society melded together from the strands and views of millions of people from across the world.
Refugees are easy to fear. We do not understand their language, we do not recognize their faces, and we find their clothes and customs off-putting. But their situation now is not that different from that which our own kin faced. We need to learn from the lessons of the past and have the bravery to speak in tones of compassion, even when it is frightening. We must remember, as the Rev. King advised, to reject that “man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life” and instead believe deeply in the value of our own humanity and jettison the sinister pull of fear and uncertainty from our hearts.
We must never abandon the understanding that America is great because it is compassionate. The day we forget this is the day that a once-triumphant experiment of human audacity to defy its baser instincts loses the authority to call itself exceptional.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.