What is America, anyway?
Is it a big chunk of land with arbitrary borders? Is it the 319 million citizens lucky enough to have been born here or to have navigated our complicated naturalization system? Is it the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights sitting under heavy glass and dim lighting at the National Archives? Is it the flag? The anthem? Our history? Our laws? Our economic might? Our military might?
I think America is progress. “In order to form a more perfect union,” reads the preamble to the Constitution, and, sometimes agonizingly slowly, we are trying to get there. Our history is bloody; our land is stolen. Our prosperity was built on the backs of human beings owned by other human beings. Even today, 240 years after our founding, we can see economic inequality and bigotry holding us back as we strain toward perfection.
But we keep straining. It’s built into our bones to try. We ended slavery. We gave everyone the right to vote that once belonged only to white men. We let same-sex couples get married. We created Social Security and Medicare so fewer people would live out their final days in crushing poverty.
Patriotism, real patriotism, isn’t waving flags or wearing T-shirts with crying eagles. Patriotism is pushing. It’s an active participation in that process of progress and perfection. And it is doing everything you can to fight people who push us in the opposite direction, who make America uglier, less free and more indecent.
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that stops all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, and those fleeing the brutal war in Syria indefinitely. It also gives Christians fleeing persecution priority over Muslims, inserting a religious test into our refugee program. It bans all visas from seven countries whose populations are mostly Muslim.
This order is an act of evil.
We have all seen the photographs of the horrors out of Syria. Entire neighborhoods, even cities destroyed as the multilateral civil war rages. A bloody child covered in the dust of destruction. Another child lying dead on the sand, waves lapping at his body. Long before Trump’s inauguration, we were already failing these people, doing far too little, taking too few of them in. Now we have shut the door on them completely.
Already, there are stories of Syrian families stuck at airports, having sold all their belongings in preparation for the journey to a country whose values should dictate we welcome them with open arms. With one signature, Donald Trump has effectively ruined their lives and possibly consigned them to death.
His broader ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries (Syria is one of them) is already having consequences as well. Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military are being stopped in airports. An Oscar nominee from Iran won’t be able to attend the awards. Google recalled employees from abroad because it worries they won’t be able to reenter the United States. The ban even includes legal permanent residents of the United States.
The bans are, in theory, temporary, but that doesn’t make them any less ugly. Temporary orders can be extended, and extended, and extended until they’re essentially permanent. This order is ostensibly a weapon in the fight against terrorism; does anyone expect terrorism to vanish in the next 120 days?
Of course the order won’t do anything to combat terror. It’s a giant gift to terrorists in ISIS-flag wrapping paper. Banning Syrian refugees? Not allowing Muslims to enter the United States? Giving Christians priority over Muslims? Can you imagine giving ISIS and other terrorist organizations a better argument that the United States is at war with all of Islam?
And can you imagine anything less American?
If the greatness of America lies in our progress toward a more perfect union, then Trump’s order is a giant leap in the wrong direction. Trump has violated everything good we stand for – plurality, freedom, human rights, even basic human decency.
There are 319 million American citizens and 319 million ways to be American. But the single most powerful one of us is using his power to warp and mar the fabric of our nation. Banning refugees, banning immigration from Muslim countries, putting Christian refugees ahead of Muslim ones – these policies won’t keep us safe from terrorism. They only serve to make us all 319 million of us a little uglier, a little less human, and a little less American.