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The migration of nations

It should haunt us for a long, long time to come: the picture of the toddler, lying face down, lifeless on the beach as he and his family tried to make it to freedom.  I felt even so much all the worse when, a few days later, newspapers and cable TV networks posted pictures of the bubbly, cherubic little boy that he was in life—so excited about life that he was all too soon to tragically lose!

“Migration of the nations” is the chapter that many books of Church History give to the waves of migrations that swept across Europe after the fall of Rome.  It was that massive movement of peoples and tribes that largely gave the continent its present configuration.  It might be an exaggeration to refer to the flood of refugees from Syria as a present-day “migration of nations,” but the toll it takes, both on the refugees as well as on the host countries (some of them, unwilling) is no less defining.

Clearly, this is no conquering horde.  If anything at all, it is a wave of frightened humanity.  But as frightening is the inhumanity that drove them from the shores of their home-country and the ill treatment they receive in some of their destinations where they had hoped to find succor.  In some cases, crowded boats were towed back to sea or even torched.  Already dazed by the sheer terror of making the sea-crossing in flimsy dinghies, many were subjected to beating and unconscionable brutality, before being herded into cattle cars so eerily reminiscent of the ghastly conveyances of the Holocaust.

These dreadful shadows notwithstanding, there has been light as well, and indeed, flashes of brilliance.  The way youngsters volunteered to usher arriving refugees to their next trains, the enthusiasm with which even Hungarians, ashamed of their government’s hard-heartedness, came to the aid of the bedraggled train of refugees, some even giving up their babies’ prams for the wounded and the disabled to ride on, and the stirring speech of Europe’s president—it makes the human spirit soar to see how, when faced with the suffering of thousands, we can be noble.

I cannot end this piece on this  major chord, indeed played fortissimo, of human kindness.  There is one terrible shadow that the scourge called ISIS has cast: what has been called “cultural cleansing.”  Only a barbarian will  remain unmoved by pictures of the ruins of Palmyra and the remnants of empires and metropolises long gone blown to bits by the fanaticism that finds a threat in every manifestation of otherness.  Emmanuel Levinas, one of the iconic thinkers of the 20th century, dedicated his second oeuvre—Otherwise than Being—to “all who have been victims of the allergy of the Other”.  There is more than terminological coincidence between “ethnic cleansing” and “cultural cleansing”, for both are, in their dreadfulness, a rejection of the other, a radical intolerance of the other, a complete bankruptcy of the ethical!

 

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