I love the history of words and their meanings. Big word people call it semantics, but I think of it as word-sleuthing. I love that Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words into popular English like "articulate" and "befriend," and how Lincoln employed the simple joiners of "that" and "here" to ground his famous, short speech in the soil of Gettysburg. I love that the right words can make a sentence memorable just by their placement, sound, or repetition.
Because I admire words, I am perplexed by the recent demonization of "sanctuary" and "amnesty" by several Republican presidential candidates. They use these words like vile slurs when addressing the immigration issue. To them, a "sanctuary city" is putting out the welcome mat for crime and lawlessness, and granting amnesty is like giving a gun to a serial killer. Does that sound wrong to anyone else?
My impressions of these words have always been strong, beneficial, and positive. With "sanctuary," I think of the scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame when Quasimodo rescues the Gypsy girl Esmeralda from a hanging, and carries her to the cathedral claiming the right of sanctuary. Even Disney's tidy and sanitized animated version includes 12 mentions of the word sanctuary, and the famous scene where Quasimodo holds Esmeralda's body above his head and invokes the protection of the church boundaries. With "amnesty," I think of reprieve for an unjust sentence, of promoting compassion over revenge, and withholding a punishment that would be punitive. Amnesty erases a small wrong to prevent an even greater one from occurring. Robin Hood sought amnesty from King John for his banditry, Confederate soldiers were given amnesty after taking an loyalty oath to the Union, and more recently, American forces in Iraq gave amnesty to former insurgents who pledged to switch sides to fight al Qaeda.
The positive semantics of sanctuary and amnesty makes the recent political hijacking so perplexing. How can Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani get away with it? Or perhaps the better question is, how long can they do this without generating a backlash. New Yorker political correspondent Ryan Lizza poses that question in his December 17th article, "Return of the Nativist." He analyzes the immigration rhetoric of Romney and Giuliani, as well as John McCain and Mike Huckabee, and paints a picture of a Republican party in disarray. He calls the GOP's anti-immigrant frenzy "Trancredoism" after Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, whose anti-foreigner ideas have influenced the primaries far more than his personal appeal. Lizza also depicts Democratic strategists as gleefully watching this policy train wreck in progress.
But if voters did not support the vilification of sanctuary and amnesty, then Romney and Giuliani would not be sneering these words in speeches and ads. Lizza quoted a poll in South Carolina where 26 percent of the respondents advocated arresting and deporting all illegal immigrants. Where does that angry quarter of the population come from? I think I know. They are the people who are scared of brown-skinned men hanging out near home depots and train stations looking for construction work. They hate signs that show both English and Spanish, and pressing #1 for English on their telephones. They think immigrants are stealing jobs that belong to Americans, and are upset that migrants don't pay taxes. They can't stand that immigrants get free health care at hospital emergency rooms. They believe that most crimes are committed by immigrants against citizens. They see their towns and cities changing, and they want everything to be the way it was before. They are watching their living standards decline, are getting scared, and need someone to attack. Led by politicians like Romney and Giuliani who twist the meanings of words like sanctuary and amnesty into curses, they learn to hate those people, the immigrants to our country, who most embody what the American spirit is all about. Shame on them.