Friday, November 14, 2014

Home is where the....

Empathy Test

The United Nations has determined that as of today, there are approximately 45-million refugees wandering our planet. About a third of these people were set adrift by US-led military actions throughout the Levant.  Approximately 7-million once called Syria home; a percentage of those once called Palestine home.  Oddly, the plight of these folks seems to gain little traction, much less empathy here in the US, and that is actually rather shocking considering that we are a nation founded by...yeah, refugees -- human refuge discarded or driven from our own traditional homelands.  

Even more puzzling?  How we evolved into one of the most racist, bigoted nations on the planet; only South Africa running a close second -- that distinction made because they, unlike us, never denied it.  Now, before you shit your pants in moral outrage, consider a few minor notions.  We embraced slavery longer and fought its demise more bitterly than any so-called civilized country on Earth.  We made ourselves into the White-Protestant mecca of the west...desperately resisting the incursion of any and all groups who would attempt to land on our shores later -- seeking the very same freedom and opportunity we sacrificed life and limb for when we first trespassed on this land -- a land long claimed by others.  The truth here is that history is rarely kind in its relentless push forward and all dynasties will fall -- some more tragically than others; yet no lesson was learned, no forgiveness sought and apparently no remorse found -- for our actions today both reveal and reinforce our insatiable arrogance toward the greater world, in that it continues to be "our way or the highway."   In effect, we demand and try to export a system of democracy and fair-play that we have chronically failed to practice ourselves.

I remember this grand statue that the French presented us in 1886 and that we decided to plant in New York harbor; somewhat ironically, pointing it out to sea and the lands beyond. The French thought they knew us pretty well, that we shared some great egalitarian principles, that just maybe this new America could and would create a Camelot in the vastness of the new west -- a dream that the world desperately needed.  And in brief moments over the next century and a half, we did occasionally shine that light.  Yet all too often we turned our backs to the fundamentals of our heritage and sat in clear-eyed apathy as the dark side of our collective soul killed the messengers.  Yeah, we hold those names in reverence today, yet fail to fully reconcile why they had to die.  If a great conspiracy did exist, we all own it equally.

 I recently read an extremely well-written piece about a young Palestinian refugee couple living in Syria. Palestinian? Yes. Already refugees from one home and now faced with losing their second chance. For all intents, they seemed like any young couple you would meet on the streets of America. Educated, ambitious...ready to embrace what life might be able to offer them.  Living was difficult in their town south of Damascus, but they had found  a sense of community there and a degree of optimism about their always uncertain future.  Then ISIS came into their neighborhood and once again they were forced to flee...but this time, there was nowhere left to go.

The State of Jefferson

Now, bear with me for a minute.  In this tale, you, the reader gets a rare opportunity to become a refugee in your own town.  And it all starts when a faction in northern California and southern Oregon decides to secede from the Union. By all standards, these folks are fairly liberated in their thinking. Small farmers, entrepreneurs, survivalists...folks married to the land. Many of them are boomers, ex-hippies -- those that once fought for this illusive palace known as Camelot. Mostly they want to be left alone, to pursue what their version of the Constitution guaranteed: that 'pursuit of happiness' thing.  Yet more and more the country that they loved was becoming a plutocracy -- ruled by an oligarchy completely disconnected from the people, whose toil and blood had made freedom and by extension, all that wealth possible. And to the north and south, xenophobic bands of Christian extremists were re-defining the new moral boundaries in the very land born through the fires of religious persecution elsewhere, and almost three centuries in the past.  So the Jeffersonian's closed the borders, burned all the Wal-Marts and Home Depots and declared their independence.  Oh...uh, the Wal-Mart and home Depot were abandoned anyway. The local residents had boycotted  these places from the beginning, choosing to support community businesses.

The year?  2017. America had a new President; a fundamentalist Christian who firmly believed that Moses got it right the first time and no government legislation could possibly say it any better.  But now, in what was referred to in the media as the "Oregon Spring," the new President was being challenged -- no, openly defied.  And his followers were demanding immediate, decisive action against these socialistic, un-American pinko's and ouliers. Well, actually farmers, retirees and fisherpeople mostly.            

So he called in the National Guard to open the blockade and restore order. Which given the realty of the situation could have been carried out by 4 or 5 journalists with baseball bats.  The blockade was symbolic, and the new Oregon Militia's weapons of choice were little more than potato guns, pitchforks and squirt guns loaded with green paint. But to his surprise, the commander in Salem refused.  He simply said, "There is no disorder and I will not demand that my people go up against their neighbors.  Hell, half of them are sympathizers anyway."  Rebuffed, the President fired the Oregon commander and called in the Idaho Guard, a state he had carried in the election by an overwhelming majority. They in turn seized the military assets held at the Oregon depots and joined forces with the fundamentalists that had already gathered in force at the newly established borders of Jefferson, claiming that they had a mandate from God, though they didn't really say how they acquired it.  It was a short, one-sided fight and the dire news spread rapidly down the coast, spreading alarm among the residents of this small fishing town...many of whom were elderly and unable or unwilling to defend themselves from the government they once cherished. Then suddenly, the internet went dead. 

In the next few days, rumors sparked of a vast force heading up Highway 101 from the south.  By now, most of the village had armed itself with what weapons could be found, as nobody seemed to know if it was serious.  The rumors were running rampant -- real information scarce. The fishing fleet had put their boats in the water, offering a ride for anybody with the $500 or a case of liquor to join them. Helicopters were over-flying the town regularly.  Some folks had tried to escape north, only to be rebuffed in the hills near Coos Bay.  Many were arrested. Those that made it back related stories of incredible violence and savagery by the 'liberating' forces (as they were called in the media), but few believed these tales -- after all, this was still America, wasn't it?  But then, the free press, that beacon of democracy had been sold to the highest bidder more than a decade earlier.  So now the Jeffersonian's were labeled a sect and painted on Fox News as the new Branch-Davidians of the north.  The next day, the power was cut off, causing the one sewage treatment plant to fail. All land lines had ceased working and sometime during the night, the remaining cell tower was blown up. People were suddenly alone, in the dark...wondering. 

Food was beginning to get scarce.  The one market in town had been pretty much sacked by the third day of the siege. Fuel was gone the next day.  Some people had wandered into the hills, others huddled in groups, while at the south end of town, a determined group had built a barricade across 101...directly adjacent to the Battle Rock monument, the worst form of irony being played out by the most unlikely of combatants.  During the night, both the Lutheran and Catholic churches mysteriously burned to the ground. A growing distrust was enveloping this community -- a place where people prided themselves on stepping up, not away from trouble.  The enemy seemed to be nowhere and everywhere.       

Then on a Friday, the smell.  Diesel fumes and the distant clatter of track-treads on asphalt. At noon, a sole artillery shot flew over the town, landing in what was the school playground. Then the loudspeaker with the ultimatum -- the blunt words of most ultimatums: surrender or...blah, blah.  Conform, find God in your heart, accept the new order of things.  Death was in the message somewhere, but that was the least ambiguous part of the message.  Mostly nobody said anything in response, just eyes meeting eyes in a kind of tragic disbelief.

Many people wandered off, choosing to collect what few belongings they could carry, and in small bands melted into the hills.  A few of these folks were walking backwards at first, taking a last look at what was home,  All seemingly gone in the blink of an eye...a few wondering loudly how this could happen in a free country, or why so many people chose not to vote.  Others stayed in their homes, too frail to make the trek; too resigned to fight the inevitable.  A few turned their guns on themselves. Those that got away wandered northeast, some thinking that Montana might be safe or maybe Canada.  Most longed for news, any news that might explain how such a thing could happen in America.  But all they could hear in the failing light was a cacophony of gun fire; at first rapid and intense; just as suddenly random, then silent.  They walked on through the night, following the stars to a destination they did not know, a welcome they might not receive. This night, they became refugees in their own land. Just another number among those 45-million other numbers who no longer have anywhere to call home. 

    I require no lesson on empathy in this matter.  You see, my own mother was a refugee.  In the vernacular of the day, she was a war bride. She also went from girlhood to womanhood in the vortex of a world war.  Did she love my father?  Maybe.  Did she need to escape the aftermath? Absolutely.  Was she welcome here?  No. Yet the hatred for this child of war here was somehow easier for her to endure than the suffocating depravity that marked her entire childhood.  

I don't have an answer here. It took me most of my life to understand her refugee among millions.  And now we have millions upon those millions.  It has to stop. Somehow.            


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