by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
I recently watched an oral history show on C-SPAN. A man named Kurt Klein, a German Jew who was able to come to the United States in the late 1930s and then served in the U.S. military during World War Two, described what it was like to liberate a concentration camp in 1945. He said (I am paraphrasing) that it was difficult to understand how human beings could have let something like this happen.
That is an essential lesson one ought to learn from the Holocaust: what does it mean for us to be human, and what obligation do we have, as human beings, to prevent the suffering of other human beings? As a practical matter, this forces us to consider whether the laws we have on the books are sufficient to meet our obligations to others as human beings. If our laws are not up to the task, then they must be revised.
The immigration crisis in Europe most recently forces us to answer the question of what it means to be human. More than 160,000 refugees from Syria and other countries are in a life or death struggle. We have to confront the horrifying image of a toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey, his slightly older brother and his mother also dead.
In the Czech Republic, police reportedly took refugees off trains headed for Germany and written registration numbers on their arms in permanent ink. This is a sickening image. Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, has declared his country will keep immigrants out. Orban explains that he doesn’t want Muslims in Hungary—western Europeans are free to give them a home. Refugees ended up sleeping in a Budapest train station where international trains were not available. This made it hard to understand Orban’s statement—were these people free to get to western Europe if they possess the power of teleportation? Hungary later provided buses to take some refugees to Austria, leaving others to walk to the border on their own. Reports indicate that Hungary is sending refugees directly to the Austrian border on “special trains”. But there are also reports that Austria is introducing border controls. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that “[s]tarting Tuesday, Hungary will classify unauthorized entry into the country as a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison.”
These people crowded onto trains, buses and boats, desperate to find safety somewhere in Europe, are human beings. They are mothers, fathers, small children, grandparents. Why then are they being treated “like animals," as one Syrian student put it? I’d argue even animals shouldn’t be treated this way, but the point is clear: these are people who are not being treated as human beings.