By Fleming Smith
Friday, January 27 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. For years it has been a day to remember the million of Jews and other minorities who were murdered during one of the darkest times of human history. In America, every year, we have to acknowledge our own responsibility: we turned away thousands of Jewish refugees from sanctuary in the United States, including Anne Frank who later died in a concentration camp. This year, we failed that acknowledgement when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning all refugee immigration for 120 days, all Syrian refugees indefinitely, any any citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen for 90 days.
During his campaign, Trump identified his belief in a “Muslim ban” supposedly to prevent terrorists from sneaking into America and committing terror attacks. At the time, Vice President Mike Pence called such a ban “offensive and unconstitutional.” Now, he and other advocates say the ban of course is not based on religion: after all, not every “Muslim” country is banned. The countries not banned also just happen to have ties to Trump’s businesses.
He signed this order on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The White House made a statement about the day, but did not mention Jews or anti-Semitism. This is not ignorance. Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and currently one of Trump’s chief advisers, has known links to anti-Semitic groups. He had a large hand in Trump’s inaugural speech, which emphasized “America First.”
Here’s the history of being “America First.” It’s the slogan of the America First Committee, a group founded in 1940 strongly against the U.S. entering World War II. Its spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, once said, “[The Jews’] greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” You see, it wasn’t America first. It meant whites first. Christians first.
Steve Bannon believes in white nationalism, and whether Trump is aware of his true beliefs or not, white nationalism now has a hold in the White House administration and policy. I refuse to believe that other Americans who support a “Muslim ban,” or any derivation thereof, actually support the idea that America is only for whites. Unfortunately, I think people are supporting this ban out of fear and xenophobia. We’ve seen terror attacks increase across the world, spearheaded by ISIS, and so we ignore our own values and turn inward.
Many of the same people who support a ban are loudly patriotic. Calling ourselves the “land of the free and the home of the brave” isn’t some lifetime achievement award, however. We can’t hang it above our mantle and show it off but ignore its meaning. Being the “greatest country in the world” means making a decision every single day to be brave, to encourage freedom. America doesn’t have a monopoly on bravery or freedom, and it seems that this past week has shown the rest of the world that we care more about ourselves than our principles.
We can’t be “America First” anymore. When we were, we let thousands of people die, including children. Those people, and the refugees and citizens of other countries trying to get into America today, believed in our country much more than we have. They truly think that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. The terrorists we need to fear aren’t the ones from other countries. We have plenty of homegrown terrorists, such as Dylan Roof whose racism led him to murder several African Americans in Charleston, but we have yet to ban South Carolinians.
Many of the people banned from travelling here are dual citizens, of the U.S. or other countries, who want to return home to their children, having lived in the United States for a number of years. Even the refugees from Syria or elsewhere are not the “unknowns” that Trump, and others, fear so much. America has one of the most vigorous vetting programs in the world. We know who’s coming in. The Department of Homeland Security called the executive order an “inconvenience” to travelers, but the bottom line is that this executive order will get people killed.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift with the inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” As long as that door is shut to even a few innocent people, there is no liberty at all. Patriotism doesn’t just mean thinking your country is the best in the world; it means making our country stand for its values. On January 27, we had Holocaust Remembrance Day. I’m afraid to think of what our grandchildren will have to remember 50 years from now, and what guilt they’ll have to carry.