Reposted from The New Yorker
Right after the election, my Twitter feed exploded with shock and moans. It seemed that everyone’s favorite phrase was “We are better than this.” I considered the statement so obviously wrong. I understood the convoluted logic of it, the jolt and hurt that would lead someone to type this, but it was not true.
We are not better than this. We are this.
The man was elected President. Ipso facto, America is this, we are this.
I say this not to suggest that we must be blamed, or that someone who did not vote for Donald Trump is just as culpable as one who did. What I keep trying to point out, to friends, to anyone who will listen, is that too few of us are willing to acknowledge responsibility—not necessarily to accept blame, but to stand up and say, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”
I remember when the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib came to light. The response was similar. This is not us. Those soldiers were rotten. It began at the top, with George W. Bush, and it filtered down. But we would never do such a thing. Of course, we did do those things, and we kept on doing them over and over, and doing worse. Some objected, but most of us simply moved on, chose to forget. “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” the Polish poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec once wrote.
Trump bans Muslims and we claim that this is un-American, that we are not this. I don’t have to talk up “ancient” history to show that we are. I won’t bring up settler colonialism, genocide, and land theft, or harp on slavery, or internment camps for Japanese-Americans. I won’t refer to the Page Act banning those deemed “undesirable,” the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, or the Emergency Quota Act. I don’t have to mention the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans deported in the nineteen-thirties, or the thousands of Jews escaping Nazi violence who were turned away. It was F.D.R., not Trump, who claimed that Jewish immigrants could threaten national security. I won’t mention any of this, because this happened so long ago. We can always delude ourselves by saying that America was this but now we are better. Let me just say that in 2010 and 2011, state legislatures passed a hundred and sixty-four anti-immigration laws.
Many were upset when Trump campaigned on a Muslim registry, but I was surprised to find out how few knew that we’d already had one: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, implemented on September 11, 2002. From the Atlantic: “It consisted of two ‘special registration’ programs: one that required foreign nationals from certain countries to check in with the government before entering and leaving the country, and another that obliged some foreigners living in the United States to report regularly to immigration officials.” Obama did not suspend the program until 2011. He dismantled it right before he left office.
I do not, I think, have many delusions about our humanity, but I did when I was younger. I immigrated to the United States when I was seventeen, from Lebanon by way of England. I came for school and to escape the Lebanese civil war. By the time I was fifteen, I’d had a close encounter with a stray bullet while I was on our building’s roof, watching skirmishes a few blocks away. I wanted out. I thought that I was leaving the violence behind, moving away from the hateful rhetoric spewed by opposing groups, left and right, Muslim and Christian. I sincerely believed that I had chosen to immigrate to a country whose government cared about its citizens, or at least had to answer to them. I was disabused of such falsities early. When AIDS began to decimate a generation, I watched my friends and loved ones die while Ronald Reagan’s press secretary literally cracked jokes when someone mentioned the epidemic. Reagan himself refused to mention it until 1985. I witnessed the suffering while the rest of the country either attacked the dying or stood silent.
It did not get better, not for me or people like me. After the murderous attack on the World Trade Center, I locked myself in my apartment, horrified. There was no room for nuance, argument, or disagreement. Bush’s rhetoric was familiar to me and to anyone who had ever lived under a non-democratic regime. In Lebanon, the various militia leaders gave similar speeches to start a civil war.
If I had a penny for every time some asshole told me to go to back to my country, for every time some allegedly nice person told me, “I’m not an Islamophobe, but,” or “Some of my best friends are Muslim,” or . . . oh, never mind. Years ago, I stopped trying to explain that even though I have a funny name, I’m not Muslim. It didn’t matter.
Yet, in spite of the fact that I’d been through similar experiences before, I had not expected Trump to win. I thought that Clinton would win not because I assumed that we wouldn’t elect a neo-fascist—I knew we could at some point, since we’d flirted with a number of them before. I simply did not think that we would elect someone that incompetent, an imbecile.
Now, of course, it’s heartening that there are so many protests. Every person I know is offended, and we are doing something about it. This is us as well. What concerns me is the assumption that I’ve heard from a number of people. Could it get any worse, they ask? Yes, yes, it’s going to get quite a bit worse.
Trump reshuffled the National Security Council, so that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence play smaller roles, while his political adviser Steve Bannon now sits on the principals committee. Under the two previous Administrations, Bush and Obama, the N.S.C. was involved in the use of targeted killings against alleged enemies of the United States Government, including American citizens, without trial or due process, with no public record of the decision or the assassination itself. Can we imagine what a man like Steve Bannon, who ran a Web site that fostered white nationalism, is going to do with that ability?
We have had voter-suppression laws popping up all over the country. Can we imagine what the Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, a man who has called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive,” who, as Coretta Scott King wrote, “used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens,” is going to do with that? What about other civil-rights laws?
Sessions will be a disaster as an Attorney General, but the voter-suppression laws are not new. Bannon is a calamity, but the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (A.U.M.F.) is on the books already. Trump, Bannon, and Sessions might be extremists, but they are not an aberration.
We must rid ourselves of comforting myths. It is going to get worse.
I was in Lesbos a year ago, helping Syrian refugees. At Moria, the biggest camp on the island, thousands of refugees were being processed every day. The crisis had been ongoing for more than six months. I’d heard that every big N.G.O. had taken a turn at leading the camp, but each one failed because of mismanagement, backstabbing, interagency bickering, governmental interference, what have you. But, as horrid as the situation was in the camp, I thought that it was being well managed, as well as it could be with so many people in and out. I met this unassuming man, a retired Mormon from Utah, who had been volunteering at the camp since the first boats arrived. He spoke no Arabic or Farsi, had no medical training of any kind, none of the identifiable skills, yet both volunteers and refugees sought him out with every conceivable question about what to do. It seems that he had arrived to offer whatever help he could. He slowly began to fill in wherever he was needed. As the N.G.O.s began to wash their hands of the camp, he was needed more and more. When I was there, he was running the damn place.
We are this. We can be better.