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Brokenness and Leadership

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, Ed.D., LPC-S

Moral Shift and the American Newcomer

The plan began with two truck bombs, one on either side of the apartment complex.  Once the bombs had exploded, but before the dust had settled, the men would run from home to home with their cache of weapons to kill survivors.  Somali Muslim refugees are dangerous, the plotters reasoned, even the babies, so none could be left alive.

The refugees’ rescue came in the form of undercover agents, two rogue members of the plotters’ Kansas militia, who fed their plans to the FBI.

When I read these events in my newsfeed, two pieces of my heart pulled open.  The terror plot was slated for Kansas, my home state, by people who were middle-aged, White Midwesterners--like me.  Their targets were forced migrants, survivors of global terror like the people I connect with—and love—in my work as a leadership educator and trauma therapist.  The rupture between these two groups, these two parts of myself, was palpable. 

“Talk to someone at church,” my husband suggested, so the next morning I stopped Pastor Scot in the hall.  

“Scot, aren’t you from Kansas?” I asked with no explanation.

“Six blocks away,” Scot replied.  “My childhood home is still there.  Six blocks from the apartments.”

I begged Scot to help me respond somehow, act against such atrocity, and he asked the one sensible question.  “What can we do?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.  “But I’m a researcher.  I’ll find out.”

What I took back to Scot a few weeks later was a summary of decades of research on intergroup violence: red flags that warn communities at risk, interventions that calm (or don’t calm) group conflict.  The data is rich and complex, but to me, it made the most sense through the lens of Dr. Ervin Staub

A child survivor of the Holocaust, and later of Marxism, Dr. Staub eventually became a leading research professor at Amherst.  And his early experiences led him to question the powerful influences behind inhumanity and love. 

Dr. Staub noticed that across time and place, societies who suffer mass violence blame everyday problems on a devalued group.  Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s loss of World War I and the subsequent hyperinflation.  Rwandan Hutus blamed Tutsis for a long list of political and economic woes.  You could name more examples.  They are easy to identify in hindsight, but the key is to see the devaluation before it pulls us under. 

To do this, Dr. Staub explained, we have to catch the early steps.  The blame process is part of a larger moral shift, a transformation of what it means to be good and loving.  During difficult changes (economic decline, political and cultural shifts), people naturally feel threatened.  So if a leader suggests the changes are caused by a target “other,” we feel inclined to band together in self-protection. 

This “other” is usually a group with a history of devaluation, so the community (or nation) is already uncomfortable with them.  Scapegoating isn’t a huge stretch.  We’re not prejudiced, but there are reasons to keep our distance.  It’s responsible to be cautious.  Yes, we are kind and compassionate, but “they” are a threat, so circumstances warrant distinctions between basic rights and “their” rights.

This is how we reach the first level of moral shift, moral disengagement.  The context warrants a different response than what our values normally require.  We have to consider the circumstances. 

From here, the second level, victim exclusion, begins to feel less shocking. 

Victim exclusion places the “other” outside the moral realm.  In other words, we can’t afford to treat them as human because they don’t meet the definition of humanness. 

Most of the time, this level shocks us.  We can’t fathom how Nazi leaders convinced the masses that Jews were “rats.”  And we’re stunned to hear that Rwandan Hutu leaders—and the Kansas militia plotters—openly described their target groups as “cockroaches.”  But moral disengagement makes us vulnerable to beliefs we would normally reject. 

Seeing the “other” as exceptional prepares us to see them as not quite human.  This is the only way I can explain the meme my Facebook friend posted—comparing refugees to rattlesnakes.   

I need to say unequivocally that my friend is a brilliant, respectable, and loving adult.  Someone I’ve known and admired for years, someone who cares about family, faith, and country in ways I will never match.  That was what made his meme so stunning. 

A quick search led me to Sid Miller, Texas agriculture commissioner, who apparently started the refugee-rattlesnake comparison in 2015.  Perhaps Mr. Miller was not the first.  He certainly was not the last.  When leaders dehumanize a group, the rest of us tend to look the other way.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  Wonder what they know.

Once the “other” is sufficiently dehumanized, the moral shift is complete.  Morality now tells us it is virtuous to inflict pain on the “other.”  We are doing so for the greater social good.  We are doing so to protect our children. 

This is the process behind refugee bans, “extreme vetting,” asylum rejection, and the dismantling of DACA.  It is the process behind VOICE, President Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement that urges Americans to call and report “crimes committed by removable criminal aliens.” 

These actions dehumanize new or would-be Americans by telling the rest of us we are vulnerable to threat and harm from them.  It assumes my White Protestant Midwestern self needs to be protected from my Black/Latina/Middle Eastern/Coptic/Jewish/Muslim neighbor.  It encourages me to suspect my neighbor might not be “legal.” 

And our fears ignore the truth—that researchers have repeatedly found either no link between immigration status and crime rate or that immigrants are less likely (PDF) to commit crimes than non-immigrants. Undocumented immigrants hold the lowest crime rates of all. We are not vulnerable.  They are.

The good news is that moral reversal has a remedy.  Moral recovery is possible when we allow ourselves to 1) see what is happening, 2) acknowledge the harm, and 3) connect with the targeted group as fellow humans.   

America’s moments of soul-searching give me hope.  We are strong enough to face ourselves.  Strong enough to face our history.  Strong enough to talk.  And we are strong enough to encounter the humanness of people we fear.

In Garden City, a growing group of physicians are a prime example.  Surprised to find a doorway to the world in the rural Midwest, the doctors saw the town’s newcomers as exactly the people they wanted to know and work for.  So they opened a medical clinic in the same community the militia had targeted.  Ifrah Ahmed, a young community member, observed, "There is still good out there. There are still people who believe in us.” 

Unexpectedly, the presence of refugees helps Garden City and similar Kansas towns reduce the physician shortage that plagues other rural areas.  The doctors who serve the newcomers staff the local hospitals too.  "In the past we had to wait a long amount of time to be seen," one county commissioner explained. "We had to travel to be seen, to get health care that now we can get easily."  When communities—and nations—see the vulnerable as human, everyone wins.    


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