Courage, America, s’il vous plait

At this writing, the governors of 24 states, all but one of them Republican, have announced they will block the settlement of refugees in their states. It seems clear they don’t have the authority to do that under the constitution they are always on about revering, but it makes for political fodder in a year leading up to a major election. Conservatives contrast themselves from liberals by claiming they respect loyalty and duty above all. Such generalizations mean nothing if you can change the particulars any time a risk is involved.

I don’t generally bandy about words like courage and cowardice; God knows I’ve fallen short too many times in the past. But the bar for the settlement of refugees seems low enough even for someone like me. Yes, there is some risk involved, but relatively little. Only one of the attackers in Paris was identified as a possible refugee, the rest were either French or Belgian citizens. Even that one case is far from clear. The fact that the Syrian passport survived the suicide bomber’s destruction suggests it was meant to be found. French police are looking at the validity of the passport as a result.

In spite of your favorite movie or video game, courage is not a matter of acting without fear; it is acting in spite of fear, because a greater good will result. Surely we Americans, so proud of our toughness, can accept the small risk involved with the settlement of refugees from the very people we are so afraid of.

Actually, it would be comforting, in a weird way, to think all of these governors were simply cowards, but I think their real motivation lies in the realm of politics. The Republican party’s lifeblood is fear. They miss no opportunity to exploit it to their advantage, and this latest move falls right into place alongside their rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. This, to me, is far more despicable than mere cowardice, over which one may have little control.

I’ll keep this short. Do you remember all those veterans you were falling all over yourselves to thank last week? Well, this is your opportunity to step up and accept a small amount of risk, and show what you’re made of. That will make all that gratitude so much more meaningful; it won’t look so much like you were just glad to be off the hook for courage.


John Coyote has written a raw and powerful poem, Killer on the Road, about being a soldier.  The style is terse, the language rough.  The odd grammatical lapses, whether from art or habit, lend the poem a particular ragged urgency, like the sharp edge of a rusty piece of scrap metal.  This comes just in time for the latest debate, about whether or not to bomb something, anything, in Syria.

We suffer no shortage of moral pronouncements from either side, each more strident than the last; Coyote gives us something more precious, and far more useful: a portrait of a human being caught in the crosshairs.  In fact, it’s two human beings, caught in each other’s crosshairs, colliding, willy-nilly, in a reality of neither’s choosing.  For once in our most recent polemics, we see the enemy,  a suicide bomber, in his full humanity:

They killed his brothers.
They came to his country and torn it down to rubble.

He believed in a eye for a eye.
He will be in paradise soon.
Tears fall from his eyes as he think of his wife sleeping alone.

Suddenly, the suicide bomber is no longer a symbol, a cause, but an ordinary man, steeling himself to do what he believes he has to do, however delusional that may be.  Coyote makes no excuses here, pushes no particular agenda.  He simply points us to a reality we routinely choose to ignore: beneath the bomb filled jacket beats the heart of Homo Sapiens, one of us.  It doesn’t mean he’s justified in his actions.  It’s a mirror, pure and simple.  This is not a particularly new insight; battlefield correspondence from soldiers down through the ages reveals the same.  What’s new here and now is the permission to see it while we are still engaged in the conflict.  The soldier who, reacting instinctively to a threat, kills this man, ends up looking into this mirror, too long, perhaps, for his own good:

He hold pictures of a man’s wife  with two children.
He wonder why he has to kill this man?

He should of been home tossing a football with his brother or something.

He cries for the Iraqi he killed.
Old Sargent said he was a hero.

At this point, it’s too late for redemption:

He would do his duty and go home.
He don’t talk of God or Jesus anymore.
He just wishes for the blood to leave his hands.

There is no happy ending here, no satisfying resolution.  Scales drop from the eyes, but a lot that’s good in human values drops with them.

It’s a picture we need to hold onto while we’re making decisions that can kill not just bodies, but human spirits as well.  Coyote is clear about where he stands: stay home, no more killing.  Others might come to a different conclusion; there is the matter of precedent concerning chemical warfare to consider.  Either way.  Just let’s go into it with eyes wide open.