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Those who are without power—the poor, the indigenous, the uprooted—are at the mercy of heartless authority, no matter that the authority has global limits. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Those who are without power—the poor, the indigenous, the uprooted—are at the mercy of heartless authority, no matter that the authority has global limits. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Altruists of the World Unite!

We have managed to divide the planet into a bunch of nation-states that, with a very few exceptions, maintain standing armies to protect themselves from other nation-states and view national sovereignty as their highest, and perhaps only, political value.

Robert C. Koehler

The biggest joke on the planet may be the phrase “national security.”

It almost always justifies something brutal, whether outright murder (a.k.a. war) or climate apartheid—the rejection and condemnation of refugees who are fleeing terrible conditions in their homeland, often created or intensified by climate change.

Thus Mark Morgan, acting director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, addressing the extent to which the United States would open its arms to Bahaman refugees in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, discussed the necessity “to balance the humanitarian need and assistance of those that need it versus the safety of this country,” by which he meant . . .

Well, the president (of course!) made matters perfectly clear, unplugging all political correctness regarding refugees and U.S. security: “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

The government could care less about our safety in the course of actions it either pursues or avoids.

One result of the national reticence of Trump America to unconditionally welcome refugees from the Bahamas—where 185 mph winds pummeled the islands for several days, rendering 70,000 people homeless — was that 119 people were told to leave a ferry that was transporting refugees from Grand Bahama Island to Florida because they lacked visas to enter the U.S. A CBP spokesperson later denied the agency had anything to do with the incident, but the ferry company said it acted after it had been advised by CBP that refugees would be denied entrance without proper documentation.

Even if it was merely border confusion, rather than intentional cruelty, that resulted in the refugees’ forced exit from the ferry (and who knows what has happened to them since?), the bureaucratic pseudo-paranoia over the safety of American citizens — yours and mine! — that has supposedly reared its head regarding another possible “invasion” of desperate non-white refugees, is a lie so blatant it’s virtually invisible.

In point of fact, the government could care less about our safety in the course of actions it either pursues or avoids. Hence, while it’s quick to go to war (regardless of the consequences, both internationally and domestically), maintain a nuclear weapons stockpile and devote a trillion dollars to developing the next generation of nukes, it refuses to confront such issues as gun violence, medical debt, the right to clean water and, oh gosh, global warming . . . just to name a few. But it’s obsessive in its determination to keep bad non-Americans from slipping into our country and proceeding to harm an American citizen or (even worse) get on the Welfare rolls.

Pretending to keep bad people—excuse me, I mean "very bad people" —out of America is a low-watt public relations ploy that feeds only one thing: us-vs. them thinking and fear of the enemy du jour, the subhuman “other.” Stirring up this fear among a segment of the population makes governing so much easier, creating an instant unity often referred to as patriotism.

But beyond the obvious racism of the Trump-era obsession over border “security,” there’s an even more blatant, unaddressed stupidity about this policy: There is no such thing as national security independent of global security.

Beyond the obvious racism of the Trump-era obsession over border “security,” there’s an even more blatant, unaddressed stupidity about this policy: There is no such thing as national security independent of global security.

Another term here is wholeness: All things—all people—are connected. Unfortunately, we have managed to divide the planet into a bunch of nation-states that, with a very few exceptions, maintain standing armies to protect themselves from other nation-states and view national sovereignty as their highest, and perhaps only, political value. This seems to leave the planet as a whole unable to unify around deep and serious issues such as climate change, which transcend national borders.

The intellectual defense of national sovereignty is that it’s a far better alternative than an autocratic, one-world government. Such a monstrous entity—Hitler writ large—is very easy to imagine, considering that governments on a smaller scale have authoritarian tendencies even if they purport to be democracies, and, of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely. No one wants to imagine a Putin or a Trump dictating directives to the planet at large. Nevertheless, leaving the planet in the hands of 190 or so potential autocrats or corporate errand boys is hardly a better alternative.

Those who are without power—the poor, the indigenous, the uprooted—are at the mercy of heartless authority, no matter that the authority has global limits. One recent such example: Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, infamous for his willingness to turn the Amazon rainforest, ravaged by human-set fires, over to mining, farming and logging interests, told reporters the Amazon is “too much land for so few Indians.”

The planet is also at the mercy of the same authority, a phenomenon that journalist George Monbiot described with shocking precision during a recent TED Talk. Noting that “human beings have got this massive capacity for altruism”—indeed, that our remarkable ability to cooperate with one another is what has allowed us to survive as a species—he adds:

“Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.

“And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.”

All of which brings me back to Trump America and helping the refugees of Hurricane Dorian vs. “keeping the country safe.” I am writing these words on the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, which compels me to point something out to the president: We responded—the whole world responded—to that disaster with unadulterated compassion for the victims. No one worried, let us say, that maybe some delivery boy fleeing the tower and seeking our help had a criminal record . . .

If we want to survive, by which I mean transcend, the global crises we face today, we must grasp the planet, and each other, with compassion—the altruism in our DNA—rather than bureaucratic caution and cold concern for the ruling interests.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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