What Conscience and Honesty Demands of All Americans

The German pastor Martin Niemöller was an early supporter of the National Socialist party in the 1930s, but quickly realized the dangers of its proposals. He founded the Pfarrernotbund, a religious group which fought religious discrimination, and spoke out against the rise of fascism. He was later sent to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.

Soon after being freed, Niemöller made a speech which contained a passage about the importance of showing compassion for people who are unlike ourselves. It has been translated and paraphrased many times; one version is used by the US Holocaust Museum:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller’s life and work are an important example for humanity, and they have particular importance at the dawn of a Trump presidency. Most Americans are excited or angry about the victory or defeat of a particular party or candidate.

As an American and a human-rights advocate, I am concerned about the proposals put forth by President-elect Trump. I am concerned about the potential for authoritarianism in the country I love.

Republicans, conservative friends, and supporters of Mr. Trump — please consider this: If the scenario were reversed, how would you feel? What would you support or oppose? Conscience and honesty require us to be consistent in our thinking; if we oppose something for ourselves, we must also oppose that same thing for others. (We all would hate to be unfairly imprisoned, so we must oppose the unfair imprisonment of others.) This, of course, is the golden rule, and it is a vital principle for all decent people.

As someone who generally lives on the left side of the political spectrum, I ask the same of myself and my leftist friends. If it’s wrong to call Obama names, why is it fair to call George W. Bush names? (It’s not.) If it was wrong for a Republican to instigate an invasion of Iraq, why is it okay for a Democrat to use drones to drop bombs on people in the Middle East? (It’s not.)

Republican Rand Paul has been laudably consistent in his opposition to parts of the PATRIOT Act, despite unwavering support from most of his Republican colleagues. I try to have that same courage — I must stand up to people whose ideology I share, when they are wrong. I hope you will do the same thing.

Let’s consider three examples.

1. The Filibuster

A filibuster is a technique for using debate to block a proposed piece of legislation. It dates back to ancient Rome, where Cato the Younger used it to block action from Julius Caesar. It has been used for decades in the United States Senate by Republicans and Democrats, to oppose activity by the other party. (Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for over 24 hours, and in 2010 Bernie Sanders filibustered a tax plan for eight hours.)

The filibuster is an important tool for democracy, ensuring that a majority party cannot exercise unlimited power. (Jimmy Stewart’s character uses a filibuster to oppose corruption in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.) Many Americans are concerned that President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress will try to eliminate the filibuster entirely, in order to enact their legislative agenda quickly.

Imagine this: If President Obama had proposed removing the ability to filibuster his agenda, how would you feel? Actually, this is not hypothetical; in 2013 the Senate eliminated the filibuster for executive branch nominees. This was the so-called “nuclear option”. How do you feel about that?

If you would oppose the elimination of the filibuster when used by your preferred party, shouldn’t you oppose the elimination of the filibuster in other contexts?

2. A total and complete shutdown of Christians entering the United States

In a December 2015 statement, Mr. Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He said this was necessary because of the “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population”.

Imagine this: If a Muslim president proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Christians entering the United States”, how would you feel? If a communist nation tried to prevent Christians from entering it, would you object? (Again, this is not hypothetical: How did you feel when North Korea arrested the American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae? The state news agency of that nation said he was conducting a “malignant smear campaign” to topple the government.)

If you would oppose a ban on Christians entering the USA, shouldn’t you oppose a ban on Muslims entering the USA?

3. Begin Removing Melania Trump?

In his “Contract with the American Voter”, President-elect Trump says he wants to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back”. (This last bit might contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since Article 15 affirms that “Everyone has the right to a nationality.” That’s a discussion for another time.)

Carrying out this removal would cause untold hardship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. For example, any children they’ve had on US soil are American citizens under the principle of jus soli, or “birthright citizenship”. Therefore, removing a parent without documentation would rip the family apart.

Imagine this: If a Sioux president proposed that we “begin removing the illegal European immigrants” from lands originally inhabited by Native Americans, how would you feel? If someone tried to send your mother out of the country, how would you feel?

Of course, this issue is complicated (as are all political issues), because people in the United States without documentation are breaking the law. Consider Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons, who came to the US on a student visa and then — after obtaining his PhD in computer science — stayed in this country because he had made many friends and found a good job. (He later passed the test and became an American citizen.)

Another American citizen who originally came to the USA on a work visa is First Lady-elect Melania Trump. According to the Associated Press, she worked as a model in this country for seven weeks in 1996 before she had legal permission to do so. Imagine if President Clinton had proposed a removal of “criminal illegal immigrants from the country”, which — according to the AP — Ms. Trump was at the time. She would have been traumatized, and her life would have been changed forever. (Ms. Trump became a lawful permanent resident with a “green card” in 2001, and became a US citizen in 2006.)

Let’s imagine further that Ms. Trump (who was known at the time as Melanija Knavs) had, for some reason, had difficulty obtaining the necessary work visa for a year. Imagine that during this year she worked as a model, paid sales taxes, otherwise obeyed the law, and fell in love. Imagine she had a child at the end of that year; her child would be an American citizen. Imagine a proposal from President Clinton to remove her (and all other undocumented immigrants) from the country. Think of how devastating that would be for her and her child. (And the child’s father, of course.)

The cases of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Melania Trump are obviously different, because no two cases of immigration are the same. In the same way, no two cases of illegal activity are the same. I have broken the law — by speeding, eating grapes at the supermarket without paying for them, and photocopying material from a book without permission. I expect you have violated the law in small similar ways as well. Perhaps we deserve to be punished for our violations of the law. But how?

Of course laws must be respected, and governments have the right to impose punishments. However, the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In other words, the punishment must fit the crime.

If a person’s only crime is moving across a border without permission, then is it fair to separate parents from children? Is it fair to remove a productive tax-paying member of society because he or she lacks the proper documentation? The question of immigration is especially complex and multifaceted, and — as with every problem — there are no easy answers.

Our principles and beliefs must be consistent. If we wish to be honest people of conscience, we must apply those beliefs in a consistent way, with the same compassion and respect for others that we would wish for ourselves.

Please Be an Honest Person of Conscience

Whether you agree with Mr. Trump’s proposals or not, please approach them with intelligence and intellectual honesty. Please listen to your conscience, and remember what happens to — for example — Macbeth when he chooses to ignore his conscience. (“Full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.”)

Whoever you are, and however you see the world, please remember that all Americans deserve equal treatment under the Constitution of the United States of America. Please remember that all human beings deserve equal treatment under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United States of America is a great country, and we can make it greater. But we must do so in a way that is fair, just, and intellectually honest. I hope you will join me in this commitment.