The Golden Door: On refugees, time travel and doing what’s right.

This poem, by Emma Lazarus, is engraved inside the Statue of Liberty.


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I think it’s a pretty good poem.


Last week in America, Jeb Bush was asked whether he would, if he could, go back in time to kill the baby Hitler. “Hell yeah, I would!” he said, and I suppose no-one was much surprised that a Bush would have so little hesitation in declaring a death sentence on a foreign child.

For the characters in the novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, doomed to live their lives in endless loops, the infanticide of Hitler is a real possibility, but they have more trouble with the question: “If I make the decision to shoot Hitler,” argues one character, “How do I not know that someone less willing to fight in Russia in the dead of winter, or to besiege cities with minimal strategic value at the cost of hundreds of thousands of men, or start bombing London and not her airfields – how do I know that this other, saner warmonger will not emerge from the conditions already in place?”

Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s the right thing.

Wars have complex causes, and it’s futile to dream of a world where everyone lays down their arms to live in harmony, or where changing a single event leads to worldwide peace. In many wars, both sides have a legitimate belief in the righteousness of their cause, and legitimate reasons for their struggle.

But then some fights are stupid.

Georgie recently wrote, regarding Ebola, “I would like to think that if this were to happen in our country there would be people who would come and help us,” and I know that this same idea is what inspires her work now. I think it’s a most admirable sentiment. And I think it’s a really important point to consider when we look at how we approach the world, because in the aftermath of the horrific attacks on Paris there are, once again, people questioning the wisdom of allowing refugees into our countries – ignoring, of course, the fact that this kind of violence is exactly what these people are fleeing in the first place. There are people within our countries preaching hate and aggression towards our own Muslim communities – again ignoring the fact that this kind of divisiveness is exactly what these fundamentalists hope to achieve. Over in the US people in actual positions of power are suggesting only Christian refugees should be allowed to enter the country.

But there is no war against Islam. And there is no legitimate or righteous battle to be fought with people who live in peace in countries which belong to us all. Our battle, such as it is, is only with that violent – and tiny – minority that carry out these violent acts.

An attack like this should only strengthen our resolve to help those people in need. In Europe and America we must do as we have always done, to open our doors to those that need our help. An attack like this should only underline that need for compassion.

Of course, there are risks to opening our borders to these “huddled masses” fleeing for their lives with the clothes on their backs. Maybe, just maybe, doing this will expose us to more attacks. It’s possible. But, like time-travelling Jeb Bush, we cannot be sure of the long term effect of our actions. Maybe in time our kindness will foster a more peaceful worldwide society for all. Maybe not. Maybe a small number of terrorists will slip through the net when we welcome the refugees. We can’t deny the possibility.

But we don’t know what happens if we take the other path, either. We can’t know what will happen if we close our borders and if the historic Schengen agreement collapses across Europe. There will be costs to that, and refugees will still flee from violence in their homelands. We can’t know how instability will take hold across the middle east and eastern Europe if we create bottlenecks where these refugees are forced into ghettos. We can’t know how many more people, desperate and afraid, will turn to violence when they see no other hope for themselves. We can’t know how many people in our own countries we will alienate and make unwelcome. We are all more alike than different, and our Western countries were built strong on a proud history of immigration, but when we remind ourselves of what makes us different we risk fragmenting our own societies, too.

Quite clearly, I am no expert in these matters. And people can and will argue these two sides back and forth over the weeks and months to come.  My point is only that – even from a purely selfish point of view – there are too many unknowns to say with any degree of certainty which of these courses best protects our own safety.

What we do know with certainty, however, is that turning these people away condemns ordinary men women and children to fear, hunger, violence and even death.

And therefore, I say, some choices become more simple.

When our options come down to a choice between showing kindness and humanity to those tempest-tost, tired, hungry and poor, or turning our backs and ignoring their suffering surely – given the inherent uncertainty in any course of action – we must choose the path that best reflects how we wish to see ourselves and how we would wish to be treated if we ourselves were so unfortunate. Surely, if we truly value those democratic ideals of Liberté, égalité and fraternité, the way is clear.

We must, like the statue says, lift our lamps, and hold wide the golden door.


Normal service will resume shortly


3 thoughts on “The Golden Door: On refugees, time travel and doing what’s right.

  1. pipcocampbell says:

    Hi Ian, thought-provoking as always. On first reading I raised a cheer. Who doesn’t agree with the sentiment of ‘lifting a lamp beside the open door’? Then an alternative analogy arose. What if I were on one of those dastardly rubber dinghies crossing the Aegean with people bobbing in the waves all around? To take some might be possible, to take all would sink the boat. There are myriads of reasons why that is an unfair analogy and I would love to think the “open door” accurately reflected the situation. But when America built the Statue there was endless empty land (nearly). Britain is a wee crowded island, unless we plan to put thousands on the Highlands of Scotland. So, of course I agree with your sentiments, and we should take as many as we possibly can; and for those left in the water we must find other, inventive ways to save, rehouse and help them and in a manner that will give them not only survival but a future too — even if we don’t quite know what how to do it.
    An obvious and impractical comment, I fear. We are lucky that so many, like Nina and Georgie, are working for solutions.
    Yours aye, Philip.


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