These are interesting times for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On the plus side, Merkel was recently named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the fourth German chancellor to be so recognized, after Adolf Hitler, Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt.
We can be thankful Merkel has more in common with Adenauer and Brandt than that other guy. She is being recognized for her decade at Germany’s helm, her leadership in Europe, and her compassion in dealing with the refugee crisis.
On the negative side, Merkel is now being punished in opinion polls and second-guessed politically because of the criminal behavior of some refugees in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve.
German lawmakers are considering changing the law to allow the deportation of any immigrant sentenced to one year in prison, rather than the three-year sentence that now triggers deportation.
There is no question the sexual assaults allegedly committed by dozens of men from the Middle East are more than an isolated incident.
The attitudes toward and treatment of women in some cultures today is abysmal, and should not be accepted or condoned in the name of cultural understanding or political correctness. Doing so is a step toward cultural suicide.
But it is equally true that Merkel’s instinct to help humans in dire need is not invalidated by the actions of these men. The vast majority of refugees are truly in dire need, and merit our compassion and assistance.
We Americans have been engaged in fierce debates ourselves, and some have called for restrictions on allowing people to enter the United States. Their prescriptions range from temporary or permanent, targeting Muslims, or Muslim men, or all men, or just plain everyone.
Such calls may seem extreme, and some of them are. But they are not new. Throughout our history, we Americans have exhibited a curious dichotomy. Nearly all of our ancestors came from someplace else, and about 13 percent of today’s Americans are foreign-born [Editor’s note: As of 2010, which more than doubled from 6.2 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau.] – about the same percentage, by the way, as back in 1850.
Despite being a nation of immigrants, we constantly subject each new group of arrivals to prejudice, mistrust, hatred and occasional violence. No time in our history, and no part of our country, is free of this.
James Patrick Byrne, author of “Ireland and the Americas,” [with Philip Coleman and Jason Francis King] notes that way back in 1734, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian church in Worcester was burned by a group of hostile Yankees. Today, I daresay most Americans assume Yankees and Scots-Irish are roughly the same group. (Genetically speaking, they are, just as all humans are.)
More than a century later, a Massachusetts newspaper published by the Know-Nothing Party described Worcester as besieged by rum shops, drunkards and prostitutes – and left no doubt that Irish immigrants were to blame.
You know the rest: Every national, ethnic, linguistic and religious group that has come to Worcester has faced some prejudice, and over time each group has persevered to become more and more an equal part of the community.
That doesn’t mean immigration is problem-free. Some legal immigrants disregard the laws and traditions of our country. And those here illegally have broken our laws by definition (although it is far from obvious that the reflexive “deport them all” is either practical or wise).
But whatever complaints we Americans have, we do not see the bodies of children washing up on our shores. We are not forced to deal with thousands of foot-sore families piling into railway stations. Oceans are not the barriers they once were, but coming to the United States is still much harder than crossing into the European Union.
The United States has geography and time on its side. We can decide whether and when to admit more refugees, and how many. We can and should carefully screen all who are admitted.
Merkel’s Germany and other European states don’t have such luxuries. We should not judge them too harshly. We must also be cognizant of history. American isolationism and xenophobia have an ugly history, but never resulted in the horrors that unfolded under Hitler and National Socialism. If the choice before us is the compassion of Merkel or a strident rhetoric that might encourage the xenophobia of the far right in Germany, we should choose Merkel.
The choices that she, Germany and Europe face are neither clear nor easy. But by standing up for human rights, Merkel is on the right side of history. Germany’s experience should remind us – whether we live in Worcester or anyplace else – of important truths about our own history and values.
More Sina-cism from Chris Sinacola:
Of Antioch and Aleppo | on learning from history and finding perspective in the debate over Syrian refugees
Bernie — mostly wrong, but very sincere | on the Democratic presidential candidate’s tenuous stances as portrayed recently in Worcester
Hey Paris, we’ll always have science | on climate change, and why researchers need to open their eyes and their minds
A true common core for education | on high-stakes testing, curriculum standards and what really matters in education
A run of the Mill situation | on free speech and the vacuous nature of many modern campus protests