A rising storm of ethnic fear

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LET me tell you about my boat. It has a single mast and a cabin at the stern. It is painted white with a red stripe at the water line. I bought it in Denmark, at the port from where in 1943 Danish fishermen and others transported most of the country’s Jews to safety in neutral Sweden. My boat measures 5 inches long. It is as huge as the human heart.

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The doughty Danes, so wonderful in World War II, have now turned churlish. They seize the jewelry and other valuables of Syrian and other migrants seeking to enter the country. This is not the same as barring the migrants, but it shows what happens when a big-hearted people get scared. Much of Europe is now scared.

America is little different. Donald Trump urged that all Muslims be temporarily barred from entering the United States, and almost instantly many Republicans followed suit. In announcing for the presidency last June, he cited Mexican immigration as a major problem — a wave of immigrants that supposedly included more than the average number of rapists and other sorts of criminals. They were taking our jobs and our women. It is a message ripped from the black heart of white racism.

Mexico and Central America are to America what the Arab world is to Europe. In Europe, it is Arabs who allegedly run sexually amok. It is Arabs, too, who purportedly threaten to overwhelm local European cultures, just as the effect of Hispanic immigration here can be seen in signage and heard in public address announcements — Spanish, as well as English.

Donald Trump and the other Republican candidates live in a firehouse that only sounds four alarms. In 1989, Trump took a full-page ad in four major New York newspapers to call for the death penalty for five youths who had been arrested for the rape and brutal beating of a woman in Central Park. The five were subsequently convicted and, had Trump’s advice been followed, they would have been executed. Inconveniently for Trump, however, they were later exonerated when another man confessed — and his DNA matched that found at the crime scene. By then, the youths had been imprisoned, one of them for 13 years.

On a summer day in 2000, over 50 women were accosted, some sexually — again in Central Park. This followed the annual Puerto Rican Day parade and it was similar, in its horror, to the mass attack on women at the train station in Cologne, Germany, this past New Year’s Eve. The Cologne attack claimed far more victims, over 500, but, as in New York, an identifiable ethnic group was blamed — Arabs or North Africans. All Europe was appalled and frightened.

In both Europe and America, the present moment is touted as the inevitable future. But the Central Park rape, the Puerto Rican Day assaults and other incidents have come and gone — either not what they had seemed or not repeated. Among other things, the cops cracked down. The Cologne incident, too, while larger in scope, has not — or not yet — been repeated. There, too, the police have learned from their mistakes.

The problem in both Europe and America is not just a huge influx of migrants, but a lack of political leadership. The exceptions are Barack Obama here and Angela Merkel in Germany. Merkel showed extraordinary leadership in allowing about 1 million Syrian migrants to settle in Germany. Obama has been stingy in his welcome — about 2,500 migrants — but he has been fulsome in his embrace of the Muslim community. Trump, characteristically, mischaracterized the president’s recent visit to a mosque, saying he had gone to apologize. For Trump, no lie is too low.

What both America and Europe need now are more leaders who know how to say, “Hold on a minute. Let’s work this out.” Instead, we get calls for mass deportations, closing borders, confiscation of wealth. In Europe, Hungary has veered right and ugly. Poland is leaning that way. France is showing a little Vichy, and Germany is shivering with second thoughts.

Donald Trump, I’m sure, knows little about history. His boat, until he was forced to sell it, was a huge, bloated affair. My boat is small, very small, only symbolic. It stands for not just what happened, but what can happen — the heroism of some, the political opportunism and cowardice of many. At the moment, too many politicians have their fingers to the wind. A storm is brewing and, aside from a weakened Merkel and an exiting Obama, not a captain’s in sight.

(c) 2015, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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