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It's September, and for most of us, it's a time to remember a beautiful, clear morning in 2001 when the world turned upside down.
History is filled with people who think that their ignorance should trump your life.
Since then, we've witnessed wars and terrorist atrocities, which seem only to get worse with each passing day. I interact daily with asylum-seeker clients whose lives have been disrupted by such events, and whose friends and loved ones have died (or more accurately, been murdered). The recent destruction of an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria and the murder of the 81-year old chief archeologist there strikes home for me, as I visited those magnificent ruins when I was a young man.
Members of Al Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban deliberately kill innocent and defenseless people. They rape children. They destroy history. There really are no words strong enough to condemn their actions.
But one word that I have often heard used to describe terrorists is "cowardly." I for one, do not think the terrorists are cowards in the normal sense of the word. Maybe killing innocent people is a cowardly act, but voluntarily going to fight in Syria or Iraq, or flying a plane into a building are not the actions of cowards. They are evil and misguided, but--at least to me--not cowardly.
There is another, perhaps more profound, application of the label "coward" when it comes to such terrorists, however. It is the moral cowardice of harming another person without making the effort to understand that person's humanity. It takes courage--sometimes great courage--to understand people we view as different from ourselves. When the 9-11 hijackers flew their planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, they were cowards in the sense that they had failed to consider the individual human beings who were their victims. This type of cowardice allows people to do terrible things. America has harmed "us;" therefore we are justified to harm "them." But this fails to account for the fact that there is no "them"--there are only people, living their lives day to day.
Perhaps the terrorist can justify their actions to themselves: No one in the U.S. is innocent; they are all complicit in their country's systematic attack on Islam; God demands the destruction of the non-believer. And while the terrorists planned and prepared for their attack, I'd wager that none inquired into the lives they hoped to destroy. Did they spend time with the loving husband and father of a new baby girl? Did they visit and get to know two young daughters of a Georgetown professor who were on their way to Australia? Did they bother to meet the hard-working firefighter and father of eight who had devoted his life to serving his community? Of course they didn't. To meet and come to know your "enemy" destroys the very notion of us-versus-them. While it's easy to project your hate and anger and fear onto "the other," it is a whole lot more difficult to depersonalize and extinguish an actual human being when you have come to know her (you can learn about those who died on 9-11 at Legacy.com).
For me, this is the greatest form of cowardice of our time. Though we live in a world that is more integrated than ever, we still manage to deny the humanity of our fellow human beings. Moral cowardice.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. I am not saying that Mr. Trump is a terrorist, but he has something in common with terrorists. You guessed it: Moral cowardice.
Mr. Trump--and the bevvy of Republican contenders racing to keep up with him--want to detain, deport, and deter many potential immigrants, including "illegals," refugees, asylum seekers, and H1B workers. Of course it's a whole lot easier to deport people you've labeled illegals, "rapists" and "killers." It's harder when you have to contend with actual human beings and their stories.
Take the case of R-H-, a young man from Honduras. A gang member tried to date his sister, and when the parents refused, the gang murdered his mother, father, and sister. R-H- escaped and came illegally to the U.S., where he was detained. R-H- did not have a lawyer, and the Immigration Judge denied his asylum application and ordered him deported. He appealed pro se. I participate in the BIA Pro Bono Project--where we screen unrepresented cases and refer them to pro bono attorneys--and I read his case and recommended it for referral. Ultimately, R-H- was granted asylum (and finally released from detention).
Now maybe you believe that all "illegals" like R-H- should be deported. But before you reach that conclusion, you have a moral (and intellectual) obligation to understand exactly what you are advocating. R-H- was the victim of horrific gang violence. If he were deported, he likely would have been murdered. It's a reasonable (though in my opinion, wrong) policy position to state that people like R-H- should be deported--our country has limited resources, we have to help "our own" before we help others, etc. But to create a straw man--an "illegal"--without knowing anything about the real person, and then to call for his deportation, is moral cowardice. Before you say, "Deport them all," you better know who it is that you are deporting and exactly what that means.
The funny (or ironic) thing is, even the most anti-immigration people often have compassion for the immigrants they know. My friend was a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan, who is certainly no friend of immigrants. But when my friend's friend landed in removal proceedings (for assaulting a cop, no less), my friend referred him to me for help. After we won the case, my friend sent me a wonderful note: "You did the most important thing a person can do--you made me look good for recommending you." I love that, but the point is, even my friend who supports Pat Buchanan recognized the humanity in the immigrant he knew and wanted him to remain in the U.S. To look at an abstract group of "illegals" is one thing. To know the individual is quite another.
Indeed, when Mr. Trump met with Dream Act activists two years ago, he told them, "You convinced me." In the face of hearing their stories, even The Donald wanted to help.
To some degree, all of us are guilty of dehumanizing "the other." It's impossible not to. But when we advocate for positions that harm others without understanding--or even trying to understand--the potential harm, we fail as moral beings. Hopefully, our nation expects better than that from itself and from its presidential candidates.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.