33 When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.
– Common English Bible
There are moments and events in life that define and shape the person you become. I am not thinking of the slow accumulation of daily experiences that paint careful brushstrokes in life’s portrait, but those instances when an entire can of paint is flung at your canvas. Moments that permanently color the conception of “you”, moments that forever mark a schism between who you were and who you are.
One of those moments for me came in 1981 when I was 21, traveling throughout Europe. I had participated in an overseas study program in Germany during the fall semester and decided to take the spring semester off to explore more of the continent. No longer part of a program, I was free to go where I wanted, I thought.
I was wrong. One of the places on my mind to visit was the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most renowned art collections. The Hermitage is in St. Petersburg, Russia. Except, in 1981, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and Russia was the seat of power of the Soviet Union. 1981 was also during the first term of President Ronald Reagan, who had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.
As an American, getting an entry visa to the Soviet Union would have taken forever and then only after completing reams of paperwork. But there was another way. Cruise ships from Helsinki, Finland offered visa-free day tours to Leningrad. Seizing this opportunity, off I went, by myself, from Germany to Helsinki and on to the Soviet Union.
Disembarking the boat into Soviet border control, the officer carefully examined every page of my passport, flipping back and forth through the stamp-filled pages. After a seeming eternity of this, he turned and said something to a comrade. Almost immediately there was shouting all around me, accompanied by jabs to the ribs from the butts of automatic rifles as I was prodded into a detention cell. Terrified doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.
Detained! I spent nearly 3 days in that cell, under military guard. I was repeatedly questioned, mostly in Russian which I didn’t understand, and my belongings searched. I was accused of being a smuggler, a subversive and a spy. I was strip-searched, twice.
Late in the second day I was visited by a representative of the American consulate. He also questioned me, but he did tell me why I was detained. My Resident Permit in Germany had expired and, on a school trip to East Germany (a satellite Soviet state) the prior semester, my passport had not been stamped when I left. I was officially in Europe illegally and, in the eyes of the Soviets, had not left East Germany through a legal border control point. 15 hours later I was pushed at gunpoint onto another Finnish cruise ship, where I was placed in another cell, under Soviet guard, until I was shoved off the boat in Finland with the totally unnecessary warning to not attempt to enter any Soviet state again.
Being detained in a strange place, where I didn’t speak the language, when I didn’t know why, was a life-changing experience. Yes, at that time there were Americans spying on the Soviet Union. Yes, there were Americans attempting to smuggle contraband into East Germany and smuggle defectors out. I was not any of those. I was a naive college student who hadn’t made sure my documents were in order.
This experience transformed me from a person who accepted authority to someone who is deeply suspicious of the powerful. I chafe at and question authority, whether in the guise of a person or an institution. I am very reserved about discussing my motivations for doing things, even with my wife. And, I must admit, my feelings toward Russians are prejudiced to this day. This experience has had a lasting, profound, and deleterious effect on my life.
And so my heart breaks for those people who, at the whim of our leader, have been detained and summarily shipped out of the country. Back to places that are dangerous for them. Back to places that may not be home, back to places that may be away from their families. How will this experience change them? What will their attitudes about us, about me, be? In what ways will their lives be changed?
Yes, there are a very few people from these countries who have committed violence against Americans. But those instances are not even a rounding error when compared to the violence Americans perpetrate on each other. This policy is wrong. It is scapegoating at its worst. It is authoritarian in concept and execution, undemocratic, and un-American. Ironically, it is deemed legal due to a 1952 law passed to justify keeping suspected Communists out. How long will it be before another Wisconsin elected official of Irish descent oversees a new House Un-American Activities Committee, this time targeting Muslims?