Straw Men, Women and Children
When I landed in Lusaka, Zambia in 1980, the country was a relatively stable island surrounded by wars and brutal governments. That meant it was a refuge for people fleeing death, destruction and brutality on nearly all sides. As the new Vice Consul at the American Embassy, I had a professional interest in those horrors. Part of my job was to implement a new U.S. State Department program of refugee resettlement from Africa. That experience informs my deep anger and embarrassment at the shameful, unnecessary and likely counterproductive ban on travel, immigration and refugee resettlement in the U.S. targeted at Muslims last week by President Trump.
Zambia shared borders with Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, all of which were war zones as those nations wrestled with their very recent colonial pasts. The fight in Angola in particular was complicated by the presence of Cuban and South African troops. To the south, Zimbabwe had just ended a long civil war against the rule of the white minority, which had displaced many people. To the east, Malawi was governed by a brutal despot and to the north Zaire was afflicted with periodic violent rebellions against an oppressive and corrupt regime. People sought refuge in Zambia in large numbers.
Overshadowing even this cauldron of displacement was the presence of the headquarters in Lusaka of the African National Congress, the outlawed opposition political party in South Africa. Many fleeing South Africans ended up in Lusaka, too, escaping through Botswana or Zimbabwe. Roads and riverbanks on Zambia’s southern and western borders were littered with land mines. Weapons had poured into the region from nearly every major power. In Lusaka, AK-47s were for rent by the night.
The first refugee resettlement program in Africa was a part of the United States humanitarian response to the situation that had overwhelmed the capacity of a country like Zambia to manage. While Zambia presented unique challenges for refugee resettlement, American embassies throughout Africa joined in the effort to resettle the most vulnerable and deserving refugees in the U.S.
With a strict cap on the number of refugees we were allowed to begin processing that year in Lusaka – fewer than two dozen, as I recall – we focused on the most deserving applicants. The experienced staff of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Lusaka was a valuable ally in sorting out legitimate refugee claims.
It was not easy to corroborate or confirm the individual stories we heard from refugees, but we followed a rigorous process. Our concern was not to weed out terrorists, of course – it was a different time – but we were intently focused on granting refugee status to those most deserving, not opportunists. Practically by definition refugees come from chaotic circumstances where record keeping has broken down or where government-sanctioned persecution and reprisals cast doubt on all official records. How were we to evaluate claims or verify details? You don’t send polite letters to dictators who routinely torture and kill their own citizens to ask if torture claims or death threats are true. Sometimes the evidence of torture was visible physically on refugee applicants; in others, it was evident in behaviors. In still others, experienced observers could distinguish fact from fiction. We evaluated claims and investigated as thoroughly as possible given the much more limited investigative tools of that day.
On our end – the screening process – we could rely on our eyes, ears and brains. The other end of the refugee resettlement process required heart and soul. The State Department worked with organizations around the country, mostly faith-based, to find sponsors for refugees. A group of people would provide a community and resources, both material and emotional, for scarred people lucky enough to have a fresh start, unlucky enough to need one. I learned from my State Department colleagues that one of the most reliable places in the U.S. to find generous sponsors for refugees was Minnesota.
In time, with help, we did our job of processing refugees for resettlement in the U.S, although far fewer than were worthy. I later received letters from some of those who established new lives in the U.S.; one worked in an Arizona copper mine, another was working full-time at two 7-11s, saving money for college. All were grateful, even as they were staggered by the incredible wealth of even average Americans. I suspect that the vast majority became contributing members of American society. I hope they healed.
I was proud to play a small part in implementing that humanitarian effort – and proud of the thousands of generous Americans who played their own parts in it for refugees from Africa and around the world.
My reaction was quite different last week when America symbolically discriminated against an entire religion, turning our backs on visitors, students, immigrants, refugees and fellow citizens for purely religious reasons. The oft-repeated defense of the travel and refugee ban imposed – that it didn’t apply to all Muslims – is nonsense, as is the argument that the order targeted only people from countries already identified by President Obama as potential threats. The government of the United States of America officially discriminated against people solely because of their religion.
The outrageous excuses defeated themselves anyway, because terror attacks by immigrants from the cited countries have not happened. So Trump’s “extreme” actions are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist either because visitors, potential immigrants and refugees from those countries do not pose a threat or because the vetting system already in place has been effective. Whichever explanation you choose, Trump’s loudly proclaimed “extreme” solution is wrong and reprehensible, and more so because it is unnecessary.
A vetting system – “regular vetting,” I suppose – has been in place and improved upon for years since my days in the State Department. By all evidence, it has been successful. And please don’t forget that most of the people who have been doing the “regular vetting” are people like me who had family and friends at home to protect just as much as Donald Trump has ever had and were as patriotic as he has ever been. The people doing that “regular vetting” were not only doing so to protect their families and their country, but were often doing it at personal risk in dangerous places. Don’t tell me those people were unpatriotic or unconcerned about the safety of Americans. Don’t tell me that their “regular vetting” has made you less safe, because it hasn’t. They have succeeded spectacularly in helping to keep us safe without insulting or endangering millions of people who should be our allies and friends, and often are our neighbors
Trump’s “extreme vetting” is a meaningless, concocted term that has no substance and will likely lead to no change at all anyway. (Just think of the Goldman Sachs-plated Cabinet that is supposed to drain the swamp, or James Comey’s suspicious emails, or Mexican payments for a wall.) Why does Trump propose an “extreme” solution for an invented problem? Without “enemies,” without fear, Trump stands for nothing. So he creates straw men to knock down, to prove how tough he is, to show us he’s got our back. In this case, the straw men, women and children are Muslims, and not just potential terrorists from seven countries, but all Muslims everywhere. “They” are his enemy. President Trump has placed them all in the shadow of evil. He clearly asserts that if we cannot yet prove they are terrorists, we just have to look harder, extremer. (Maybe some extreme water-boarding would yield proof.)
The scary part of the episode? Who’s next?
As abhorrent as I find our government’s actions of the past week, I am truly baffled by only one thing in President Trump’s explanation of his edict on immigrants and refugees. Why did he single out Christians for preferential treatment, a group with which, by my observation, he has so little in common?
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
I do not apologize for posting political and humanitarian comment on a site that has been largely apolitical. I have always recognized that people of different political beliefs can find common ground on many issues, such as managing and preserving public spaces. But the time comes when silence is not acceptable, when we all must use whatever means we have at our disposal to condemn policies that are so objectionable.
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I’ll return to my regular park-related topics soon.