Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving younger brother accused in the Boston bombings, migrated from Russia to America at the age of eight. Seung-Hui Cho, who committed the Virginia Tech massacre, migrated from South Korea to the USA at the age of eight. I also immigrated to the USA at the age of eight. It reminds me that we have many troubled young men in our country, and that Tsarnaev could have been anyone’s son, brother, or friend.
I was disappointed by news reports that some ethnic Chechens in Boston and elsewhere hid in their homes, fearing blame and reprisals from other Americans. I can state categorically that the vast majority of Americans do not support reprisals of any kind. Despite their struggles with racial inequality, Americans firmly believe in the ideals of opportunity and freedom for all.
We should all share solidarity with our Chechen neighbors in their time of need. I also encourage Americans of Chechen descent to step up and show their commitment to their new-found country. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese-Americans volunteered to serve in the 442nd Infantry Regiment (“Go for Broke!”), which fought and suffered many casualties in Europe and became the most decorated unit in the history of the US Army.
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech, many Koreans and Korean-Americans participated in candle-light vigils, commemorations, and donations. I also encourage Chechen-Americans to engage with their fellow Americans, in ways big and small—not to apologize, but to show they part of our shared nation and community.
America is the adopted homeland for millions of migrants and refugees from all over the world. We cherish our freedoms, whether it is the freedom to seek refuge from troubled lands or to own guns for hunting and sport. No other country in the world can claim to tolerate millions of immigrants and gun owners alike.
Mr. Tsarnaev not only enjoyed the freedoms to migrate, work and live in America, but also the right to buy numerous firearms and explosives. He abused his freedoms to commit unspeakable atrocities on other Americans.
Evil and tragic events can and will happen in a free, diverse society; additional governmental regulations that curtail individual liberties (such as to travel or bear firearms) may not necessarily enhance our security. A solution more consistent with freedom is for citizens to nurture the duties of citizenship and sense of shared local and national community.
In our increasingly diverse society, some claim that it is fine for people to live in self-segregated, culturally homogeneous enclaves with little interest or concern for the larger society. I do think not this perspective is viable in tumultuous times, when millions from Somalia to Syria seek refuge in the USA. All groups need a modicum of engagement with and obligation to the larger polity, to ensure that America remains a global beacon of freedom and opportunity. Gun owners and associations need to go beyond the right to bear guns; they must continue to help (as many are already doing) to develop a culture of non-violence and responsibility that comes with owning guns, and engage with the larger government and society to do so.
Similarly, Chechens and other immigrants cannot insulate themselves from their neighbors and just focus on the American dream of upward mobility; they must also educate their children to the duties of citizenship and to engage with the larger society. The ethos of separation discourages concerned immigrant parents and community leaders from communicating effectively with the proper authorities to deal with their troubled children.
I feel immense pride today in being an American. In many countries, a similar tragedy would have elicited mass, nationalist protests against foreigners. We are strong enough to mourn and celebrate the dead without rushing to judgment or stigmatizing vast groups of people. My students and I express our solidarity with ethnic Chechens and with all the fine people of Boston.
On a final note, I encourage my fellow migrants and expatriates everywhere, including here in South Korea, to also step up and become part of their larger communities. Whether we are factory workers or office professionals, it is right and proper to ask our native-born neighbors and governments to respect our legal rights and human dignity. We should also do our part to thank the nation that has invited us to work and live here. We can engage with our co-workers, bosses and neighbors, in ways big and small, from putting in an honest day’s work to volunteering at the neighborhood center. Global migrants can do our part to encourage nations to open their doors and to exemplify the words on the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”