A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1782
September 14, 2015

STRANGERS AND REFUGEES

MONTPELIER – A few years ago I mentioned somewhere in print that the metastatic proliferation of “assault weapons” in the United States would not, most likely, lead to a happy ending; further, that their possession seemed often to engender various violent fantasies among the disgruntled.

In the immediate aftermath of my comments I was treated to a full range of responses, the preponderance of them negative (I use the term ironically, as only weakly descriptive of what came in). My favorite: “What are you going to do, Mr. Lange, when the terrorists drop a dirty bomb on Boston and a couple of days later about 200 refugees are headed up your driveway?”

It was clear he meant to ask how I could hope to dispatch them all without fast-firing large-magazine weapons. He sneered at my old Winchester as inadequate to the task, and almost lost it when I said the first thing I’d do is ask my wife how we were fixed for groceries and extra camping mattresses, and then get ready to endure 200 Boston accents. His one-word valediction: “Fool!”

Well, maybe; but it’s hard to believe his solution any less foolish. And now, with Europe in the same situation, we’re seeing the same range of reactions, from the fierce, harsh, and suspicious to the apparently sympathetic and welcoming. Hungary is racing to complete a 13-foot-high, razor wire-topped fence, urged on by its right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who sees the crisis as a battle to preserve Europe's prosperity and "Christian identity.” Unsurprisingly, the desperate refugees, carrying what little they can, and many of them carrying infants or leading small children, as well, have responded negatively to the attempts at exclusion and repression – “rebelled against Hungarian legal order,” as Orban puts it.

Meanwhile, Germany and Sweden, for whatever reasons, are guardedly welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees, while urging their fellow European Union members to do their parts. It’s possible they recognize that – as the curator of the Icelandic Emigration Center told me a couple of years ago – the ones who flee almost intolerable, hopeless situations are the ones with initiative, and most likely to contribute positively to their new homes, a notion that seems not to have occurred to many citizens of the United States. As one Facebook poster on my page wrote this morning:

I just hate working my whole life to have my house taken away to pay for all people who don't work. I care about my kids! I care about our vets! I care about not living on the street as a cripple because I can't afford to have my taxes raised to help raise someone else's kid. What's wrong with staying in their country joining the military and make it free just like we did in America an do so much for everyone else. [Expletive deleted] They lose a limb and have to pay part of the medieval bill? Send them to Mexico! There seems to be a lot of people who no longer live there. They must need these hard working people who are going to take care of them selfs. I'm a compassionate man, but there comes a time to stand up and fight for my family!

SpellCheck seems to have let this bleeding heart down once or twice, but you can get the gist of what he’s saying. Unfortunately, he speaks for many thousands of United States citizens.

On the other hand, amid the constant repetition of “Remember the Alamo!”-type notices about the September 11, 2001, catastrophe in New York City, it’s important we never forget the reception that United States citizens got when their airliners were, in the hours after the event, directed to land at once “at the nearest airport.”

By the end of the day, the international airport at Gander, Newfoundland, had 53 aircraft on its runways. Passengers and crews were deplaned one at a time. During the long night’s wait, ground crews brought food, medical attention and water, and supplied lavatory services, if needed.

Gander’s population was just about the same as the number of people on the planes, but somehow the Newfoundlanders provided lodging, food, and communications for all of them. A woman 33 weeks pregnant was housed across the road from the local urgent care facility. Several surrounding towns closed schools and meeting halls to provide accommodations for the stranded travelers. The passengers of Delta Flight 15 were bused 25 miles to the town of Lewisporte, on the north shore, where they were housed in the high school . Families were kept intact, and the old folks were put up in private homes. Bakeries stayed open 24 hours a day to keep fresh bread coming; passengers got free tokens for the local laundromat; and restaurants served special meals. A member of the cabin crew who’s written abut the experience says that many of the passengers were in tears as they described Lewisporte’s generous hospitality.

When their plane had finally taken off from Gander for its original destination, it was, writes the hostess, like a charter flight. One of the passengers, allowed to use the sound system, suggested they take up a collection to help Lewisporte’s kids go to college. To date, the trust fund established as a result, has raised more than $1.5 million.

The Book of Deuteronomy’s been getting quite a pounding recently in the retrogressive flap over gay marriage. But it has some other things to say, which, regrettably, we don’t hear so often. [The Lord] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Photo by Willem lange