With the new millennium, Europe increasingly became a magnet for migrants. Such a migration engendered nativist movements, racism, and violence. (In the former East Germany, migrants' hostels were firebombed at an alarming rate. In France, the National Front kept gaining in popularity as the immigrant population kept increasing.)
But what we're seeing this year is something Europe hasn't witnessed since the end of World War II. Frankly, it's something Europe has never witnessed. A swathe of humanity is on the march, and it's heading for European shores.
And they're not migrating to escape economic conditions. The Arab Spring has sputtered out into intractable, genocidal wars. Syrians and Iraqis and Libyans are fleeing death and destruction. If you were a Syrian, wouldn't you flee this?
With ISIL on one side and governments on the other, escaping the shooting galleries of Aleppo and Mosul is not a choice to be pondered, but the only way to save one's life. Although, as we learned glaringly last week, even in escape refugees risk death.
Thousands have already died this year in the crossing to Europe. Thousands more will probably die in an effort to escape death. This is the greatest migration the world has seen since the partition of India in 1947. And the tragedy is just as palpable.
At first, Europeans were divided in what to do, with many of the belief that the problems of the Middle East weren't theirs. But that photo of the dead Syrian child seems to have shifted the debate. It put an innocent, human face on what is the greatest tragedy of the new millennium. His parents risked possible death to escape certain death. It was no longer abstract. It was about dead children washing up on beaches.
Read what German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to say about the crisis:
As refugees streamed into Germany and Austria, ordinary citizens gathered to welcome them, donating necessary items, taking them into their hearts. Pope Francis has called on every Catholic parish to take in one refugee family. Even in Hungary, where its government has responded in almost fascistic terms to the crisis, the citizens have given succor to the refugees. Europe, addled for much of the year, seems to have finally been galvanized into action. The tweet below illustrates the thinking, especially among the two countries responsible for the previous world-wide cataclysm.
"It is our time to heal those that suffer."
This is the core of any decent human life. Not to accumulate wealth, possessions, prestige. It is to make the world better. It is to give your cloak to a man without one. It is to spark the light of humanity where there is darkness. It is to give aid and comfort to those who are bereft of everything. All religions have that mission at their cores. That so many adherents ignore those teachings is not a condemnation of the teachings, but of those who ignore them.
For decades, the Middle East was a proxy Cold War battlefield. And now that untenable situation has exploded. We are seeing the unwinding of 20th century political structures, with the consequence being chaos, as those structures were based on violence and repression. A civil society never developed, because it was a threat to the ruling elites. So people turned to more radical visions, until we are where we are today: the enemies of human civilization destroying both the past and the living.
The West has much at stake in what's happening in the Levant. It also has much responsibility for it. The United States has taken the lead in conducting military operations to help halt and reverse the ISIL rampage. No one wants to get involved in another quagmire of a land war. But as human beings, we have a responsibility to each other. If our role is to bomb to help defeat ISIL, and Europe's role is to take in those displaced by war and death, then that seems an equitable division of labor.
Healing the world, after millennia of war and horror, is our great task. Our continued existence depends on it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm now aware that the parents of Aylan Kurdi asked that the picture of him on the beach not be used. Unfortunately, that picture is what has pricked the conscience of the West. However, healing the world means that the below picture of Aylan is for what we strive. May he be the last to die for the sins of old men.
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