The Great Shame of 2016

On September 17, 1862, outside of the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, the United States Army faced off against the army of the Confederate States of America in what has become known to history as the Battle of Antietam.  In the summer and early fall of 1862, the U.S. Army had suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the break-away Southern states, and was on the verge of losing the war.  Now, the armies of the South had invaded Union territory, and were threatening to march on Washington, D.C.

On that day, confusion and poor leadership left the center of the Union line vulnerable.  To stave off disaster, and acting on his own initiative, Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher led his Irish Brigade (including the soon-to-be-legendary 69th New York Infantry Regiment, "The Fighting 69th") in a desperate charge against the Confederate center, at a place that has now become known as "The Sunken Road," or "Bloody Lane."  The charge failed to break the Southern line, but it stalled the Confederate offensive long enough for the Union to get around the Confederate positions and force them to retreat.  Washington was saved, and a few months later President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in captured Confederate territory.  The casualties for the Irish Brigade at Antietam were over 60%.

Many of that 60% had come to America as refugees, fleeing an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of 1845-1852.  They were newly arrived, mostly poor, and part of a despised religious minority.  And yet they fought and died for a country that mostly hated them, and they did so with courage and dedication that saved a country, and allowed others to live free.  They are remembered and revered and rightly so.

On June 8, 2004, Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan, U.S. Army, was inspecting a guard post near Baqubah, Iraq, when a suspicious taxicab began approaching quickly. Ordering his subordinates away, Khan ran toward the vehicle and was killed when the bomb with which it was fitted exploded.  The car detonated before it could reach the installation gates or the nearby mess hall where hundreds of soldiers were eating.

And now, in 2016, those of us who live in the United States, and particularly those of us who have ancestors who come from the same pool as the men of the Irish Brigade, are in the midst of an election that can be boiled down to a single, fundamental question--what is the difference between the men of the Irish Brigade and Captain Khan?  And I am convinced that there is only one correct, justifiable answer to that question, and it is consists of one word--nothing.

Captain Khan's family came to America from overseas, just like the men of the Irish Brigade.  Captain Khan carried with him a religion that was seen by many in the general populace of this country as a force for oppression and bigotry--just like that of the men of the Irish Brigade.  Captain Khan volunteered to fight for his adopted homeland, under the banner of the same flag and for the same ideals that the men of the Irish Brigade fought.  And, like the men of the Irish Brigade, he died for that flag and those ideals.

Sure, the war in which Captain Khan fought brings with it a different moral calculus than the American Civil War, but whatever those differences, surely they have little if anything to do with Captain Khan or with the men of the Irish Brigade.  Captain Khan, like the men of the Irish Brigade, fought where and when their country called them to fight.

We are coming, mercifully, to the end of an election in which one man openly promises that he will send people like Captain Khan away or make them prisoners in their own adopted country.  Not to mention that he says he will deport millions of Catholics, different from the Irish Famine refugees only by their last name.  Those facts--alone--should be facially disqualifying to anyone who has Irish ancestors and takes seriously their heritage.  Not just them, surely, but here I would like to focus on my own.

Let me be as clear as I can possibly be.  If you are of Irish Catholic descent, and you vote for Donald Trump, you are spitting on the memory of your ancestors.  Your ancestors held their heads high, fought with dignity and hard work and honor to secure a place in this country, and to make this country a better, more diverse, more tolerant place.  Your ancestors showed that religious difference could be accepted and welcomed, not feared.  Your ancestors showed that even those who come here with nothing, the wretched of the earth, could find a home and prosper.

But if you vote for this man, you are voting to tear down the entirety of what those who came before you worked to build.  You are embracing every bit of the prejudice and discrimination that was directed against people like you only a few short generations ago.  You have become every bit of  the monster your ancestors worked so hard to overcome.  You are a disgrace to their memory.

And for those who are clergy as well as Irish Catholics who will support Trump?  You are even more despicable.  You have not only betrayed your ancestors, you have demonstrated that you care nothing for the Jesus you claim to serve.  You are worse than Judas--at least he got his thirty pieces of silver, while you are doing it for free.  Get out of my sight.

Do what you want; I can't stop you.  But don't you dare come around back after November 8th and tell me how much pride you have in your Irish heritage, or how important that story is to you.  You have proven, in the most consequential election in generations, that you have learned nothing from that story.  Don't you dare come around and tell me how important Catholicism is to you, when you are willing to let this lunatic ship your co-religionists back to their place of origin in railcars like cattle.  Do what you want, but don't you dare pretend that you are bringing credit to those who have come before you.  Don't further disgrace those who fought so hard to secure a better, more tolerant America for future generations.  You know nothing about them, and you clearly care little about anything other than your own selfish interests or your own dark bigotry.

As Rene Girard has said, "history is a test."  It is a test of our humanity, and it is a test of our memory; of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.  In this election, we are confronted with a big test.  If you are Irish, you have no excuse regarding this test--you have the story of this test burned into your ancestral memory.  Your ancestors lived the truth that we are fighting over here.  If you fail this test, it will be a shame that will carry on long beyond these months and years.

You know what to do.  Do right by those that charged the Sunken Lane.  Do right by Captain Khan.  Don't bring this shame to generations to come.


dianedp said…
I am old enough to remember my grandmother's stories of the Irish plight in Brooklyn/NY city in the early 1900's.
I am proud to be the daughter of immigrant and I married an immigrant.
Donald Trump and his ilk betray the very essence of the American dream.

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