For decades, Sue, our kids, and I have spent Thanksgiving with the same group of friends at Bill and Bonnie’s home. Over the course of those decades, our numbers have grown as kids matured into adults and started their own families. And this year is special because our older son, Matt, Alyssa, and their one-year-old twins (Mari and Vivian) will be joining us for the first time since the kids were born.
It’s always been passing strange that the single holiday I actually enjoy began, according to some historians, as a commemoration of the Pequot Massacre between 1634 and 1638. After colonists found a murdered White man in his boat, armed settlers burned a Pequot village and their crops, then demanded that the Natives turn in the murderers. The Natives refused and a massacre followed.
Shortly afterwards, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, declared, “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God they had eliminated over 700 men, women, and children.” It was signed into law that “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” (In support of a proposed national holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale, novelist and author of Mary Had A Little Lamb, wrote letters to five Presidents of the United States: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, but the letter she wrote to Lincoln convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863.)
In a proclamation Lincoln implored that all Americans ask god to “commend to his tender care all those who had become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife,” and to “heal the wounds of a nation.” And while Lincoln connected the holiday to the Civil War, “festivities” actually dated back to the Puritan massacre.
So yeah, although the holiday’s origin is in direct contradiction to everything I’ve believed in throughout my adult life, it’s still the one I’ve enjoy the most. Go figger.
But this year, despite the joy of being with my entire family and a large number of friends and their families, my face is planted hard into that contradiction. As I write this, there really is no escape from the national debate about shelter for Syrian refugees that’s erupted since the Paris tragedy. It’s as if the majority of my fellow citizens are projecting our genocidal history with Native Americans onto people who are seeking safety from the inhumanity and mass destruction which hangs over their heads. An obscene inhumanity brought about in no small measure because of our intransigent wars in the Mideast. Go figger.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve slammed our door in the face of specific peoples. We did it to the Chinese with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, we turned away Jews trying to escape Nazism, and we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps during the Second World War. (And these are just quick-fire examples.) So there’s really nothing new in our rabid response to Syrian refugees. Fear, rational or not, does that.
I understand the anxiety caused by the Paris tragedy. I vividly remember my frantic calls to New York on 9/11, looking for my son and my cousin who worked downtown. I live in Boston so the Marathon Bombing still rings fresh. Look, every society wants to self-protect. I get it. But to imagine that Syrian refugees will just waltz through the door and into Mosques to plot terror attacks is, at best, ignorance, and, more likely, as usual, sheer racism. As it was against the Chinese, Jews, Japanese, and other nationalities who’ve been given the back of our hand.
While politicians play politics with our fears, every once in a while it’s useful to look at some facts. Here’s a very abbreviated list of refugee security screening:
Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense.
All refugees, including Syrians, are admitted only after successful completion of this stringent security screening regime, which includes all available biographic and biometric information vetted against a broad array of law enforcement and intelligence community databases to confirm identity and ensure safety.
This screening process has been enhanced over the last few years to ensure we are effectively utilizing the full scope of our intelligence community to review each applicant.
Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. We continue to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified
Clearly, it’s not impossible for a potential terrorist from any country to sneak through and blow something up. But the vast majority of what has occurred in this country that’s been termed “terrorism” has come from home-growns. Born and bred White Americans. To use Syrian refugees to pander to our people’s basic fears is almost as cold and callous as the bombs we’ve dropped on their region. But given the history of Western Civilization, the history of our species, it comes as no surprise
The opening scene in Werner Herzog’s, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starts with a distant aerial shot of clouds atop a mountain. As we slowly travel through we begin to see movement on the mountain. Drawing closer it’s possible to make out caterpillar lines of motion. As we get even nearer, those caterpillars become people. Really close, we see Conquistadors marching while whipping slaves to pull their carriages and equipment. What was at first beautiful becomes horrifying.
So it’s tough to give thanks these days. But come Thursday, surrounded by love and joy from friends and family, I’ll no doubt kick back, eat, drink, and set aside the pain and suffering that surrounds damn near most of our world. After all, despite vicious politician fear-mongering, I know, comfortable in my White privilege, that no bombs will turn me and mine into homeless refugees. Luck of birth, eh?
later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
where does it hurt?
~ Warsan Shire