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Back to Where I Came From?

November 1, 2019

When, if ever, is it OK to witness horrible injustice on a mass scale and tell yourself, “I’m too tired to deal with this. Not today. Maybe not ever.” Well? When, if ever, is that OK?

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

When, if ever, is it OK to witness horrible injustice on a mass scale and tell yourself, “I’m too tired to deal with this. Not today. Maybe not ever.” Well? When, if ever, is that OK?

Reason I ask is that when I was on the road with an opera company in Europe in 1976, we spent several weeks in Germany. My dad was a master sergeant in World War II and our branch of the Kahn family is ethnically, though not religiously, Jewish. Jewish enough for the Nazis to have killed all of us, certainly, had all the Kahns stayed in Alsace Lorraine, to which we would have had to return if someone, O, say, the president of the United States, told us to go back where we came from.

I liked Germany. I like the German people. They were tolerant of my stuttering German, but so many of them spoke fluent English that we were usually spared that ordeal. But here’s the thing. Every time I fell into conversation with an older German, my brain calculated his age and wondered what he had been doing around 1941.

I did not do that — my brain did it without me. Often, I wanted to ask the question, but it would have been rude. Bad manners. It was none of my business what a stranger did 35 years ago.

Still, my brain wondered.

That was one reason — not the only reason, but a big one — that when I met refugees from the Salvadoran death squads in 1984, on the streets of Tucson, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and I knew that the United States was involved, I quit a job I liked, teaching school, and volunteered to do legal work in U.S. immigration prisons, helping refugees.

I’m not patting myself on the back here. I’m saying that one reason I went to the prisons is that I wanted to have an answer, should someone in years to come — perhaps my own child — ask me: “What did you do during the wars in Central America — when we were deporting people to death?”

I went to the prisons so I could say: “Here’s what I did,” with a clean conscience.

Today’s “immigration crisis on the border” is nothing new. It was just as bad or worse 35 years ago under the Reagan administration, when wars raged openly in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia, and clandestinely in Honduras.

Then as now, the main drivers of immigration north were the corrupt and repressive, violent right-wing governments and our own corrupt, violent and repressive government that supported them: offering freedom and justice for all with our left hand, while jailing, beating, molesting and deporting refugees with our right.

Am I asking y’all to quit your jobs and go help refugees?


I’m asking: What does it take, here in our country or anywhere in the world, to make you open your mouth and say, “This ain’t right.”?

Back in the Nazi days in Germany, people had real and self-evident reasons to keep their mouths shut. Even the “good Germans” had reasons to hide who they were. Especially the good Germans.

What reasons do Republican senators and congressmen have today?

Now, I am not comparing little donjohn to Hitler.

I am comparing the Republican majority in the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to the good Germans of the 1930s.

And as the Illinois Nazi leader said in that fabulous movie “The Blues Brothers”:

“What have you got to say about it, Whitey?”

(Courthouse News editor Robert Kahn wrote the first history of U.S. immigration prisons, “Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade,” Westview Press/HarperCollins, 1996.)

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