by Robert C. Koehler
“. . . we belong to the Earth rather than to a nation . . .”
These words stick in my heart like a wedding ring. They emanate a cutting glow, a crying wish and hope that slices to the core of me. At the same time, I feel surrounded by a cynical “realism”: Don’t be a fool. A marriage like that isn’t possible. Be grateful you’re an American. Arm yourself! We’re being invaded.
The border! When the term is used, it virtually always means the southern one, where migrants die in the desert – an estimated 10,000 over the last 25 years. Yeah, the southern border, America’s vulnerable spot, where hordes of Third Worlders congregate, shaking their fists, demanding entry and access to our wealth, our jobs. For lots of Americans, the response is obvious; it’s basic racism. They’re different from us! That means they don’t belong here.
And in recent weeks, as three years of Covid restrictions are loosened: “Heeding the call of the state’s right-wing political leaders, armed vigilantes stalked and harassed humanitarian aid providers during the day and by nightfall rounded up migrant children in the dark,” Ryan Devereaux writes at The Intercept.
Their efforts to protect America, he notes, include shooting holes in the water tanks humanitarian aid workers have set up along the border to give migrants a better chance at survival. No way can this be allowed!
But of course it’s not just the vigilantes who are “defending” the U.S. border. The government is completely defense-oriented in its attitude toward immigration. As Alan Lizárraga of Border Network for Human Rights puts it, as quoted by Candice Bernd at Truthout:
“The border has never been as militarized as it is right now. We have the state government sending troops here, the National Guard. We also have state troopers at the border. We just got additional troops from President Biden. . . . (I)nstead of creating actual policies that would aid toward a more humane, more practical immigration system, we’re getting Border Protection Units, we’re getting military personnel, we’re getting more police, more agents.”
This is where the money goes. This is where the country’s official effort goes – toward keeping most desperate migrants out of the country, perhaps at the cost of their lives (not our problem). The futility and insanity of our government’s policy merely begins with the cruelty it manifests at the border; the separation of families, the caging of children, etc., etc.
I’m not saying a shift toward greater empathy for the plight of migrants would simply require a change in attitude. Understanding and dealing with the causes of the flow of migrants to the southern border – the wars and poverty and persecution around the world – is enormously complex, and would require deep, deep changes in how we think: in our attitude toward the rest of the world.
So I return to the words at the beginning of the column, from Steve Taylor’s essay in The Conversation; My primary identity – our identity – is not as Americans but as inhabitants of this planet, which we share with seven billion other members of the human race, not to mention with every other species, every plant, every handful of soil, every drop of water.
Indeed, “share” is hardly the correct word here. Hey, President Biden, listen up. We are all connected with one another! We are all part of an almost infinitely complex ecosystem, and we’d better do what we must to preserve it. The last thing we need to be doing is playing “Get out of here! This is mine!”
The ultimate point I’m reaching for – let me just say it – is that “America” is an abstraction, a made-up entity and in no way should it be our first or, for God’s sake, only concern. A border wall, for instance, that is “good for America” but harmful to the environment is a disastrous irony. The changes that human civilization as a whole must make in order to rescue the global ecosystem – devastated by human exploitation and pollution – are almost beyond comprehension. But we can’t start addressing these changes merely as national entities bickering and bargaining with one another, with the participants’ primary, or perhaps sole, focus that of “national interests.”
We belong to the Earth rather than to a nation.
To act otherwise is basically a collective neurosis. Taylor, for instance, notes that “when people are made to feel insecure and anxious, they tend to become more concerned with nationalism, status and success. We seem to have an impulse to cling to labels of identity to defend ourselves against insecurity” – labels defined, for instance, by race and nationality.
“In my view, then” he goes on,
“all nationalistic enterprises – such as ‘America First’ or Brexit – are highly problematic, as they are based on anxiety and insecurity, so inevitably create discord and division. And since nationalism contravenes the essential reality of human nature and human origins, such enterprises always turn out to be temporary. It’s impossible to override the fundamental interconnectedness of the human race. At some point, it always reasserts itself.”
Perhaps you could say this interconnectedness has reasserted itself as global climate chaos. Limited thinking allows us to kill. If we act with destructive indifference beyond or within our borders, beyond what we value, the consequences always come home. One form it takes, of course, is climate chaos: rising sea levels, toxic air, ecosystem collapse. A militarized attitude toward other national entities – toward all our problems – has also led to a plague of mass murders at home.
But I would add that interconnectedness also reasserts itself as empathy, caring, courage – bringing water to migrants at the border in 2023, ordering a drink at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960. Yes, we can transcend our limits, even when doing so means breaking the law.