This is the train I took from Budapest to the lakeside resort of Balatonfüred last September.
As you can see, it was a fairly bread-and-butter railway experience. You switched on the air conditioning by pulling down the windows. The toilet was a sort of interactive sculpture inviting the patron to lift the lid and get intimate with Mr. Trackway. Everything about it was pleasingly non-Western, blessedly free of wi-fi and flatscreens and sound systems. The silence was vintage and magnificent.
It was mid-week, mid-day, and the only others in my carriage were some elderfolks and a spindly student with a violin case. It could have been 1975.
As the capital’s suburbs fell away, the land opened up into simple farms, villages, and railway stations small as private homes.
Summer lingers through Hungary’s September, and as we rolled down into thick riverlands, the towering stands of chestnut and linden trees flying by looked still in the fierce verdure of late spring. The slipstream stirred the humidity just enough to make it feel like an embrace.
Having just gritted my teeth through another grey, foggy, windy San Francisco summer, here at last was proper summer: a spontaneous sense of contentment, ease, and abundance. Out the south-facing windows, at long last the silver corner of Lake Balaton flashed into view. It was one of those rare, exhilerating signposts of peace and contentment by which you relocate yourself after a season of wandering.
Had someone told me then that in less than a year the Hungarian rails would become the scene of such abject chaos and misery as we’ve seen this last month—that the very type of train whose simplicity I treasured would soon be dangerously, agonizingly packed with people in the most desperate of circumstances—perhaps I would have believed them, but they would have had a fair bit of explaining to do.
Then again, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes. Hungary by nature is a gateway to the West, and these episodes have never been without their problems.
Sopron 1989 comes to mind. At that time some 100,000 East German holiday-makers refused to repatriate and became refugees camping around the Balaton; at the same time, some 30,000 to 40,000 Romanian refugees were pouring over the country’s eastern border seeking asylum. But Prime Minister Miklós Németh dealt with that crisis a little more creatively than Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is dealing with this one.
In fact, the events of the last several weeks have jarred me into joining and becoming active in a human rights group for the first time since my early adulthood.
The migration crisis is admittedly a fiasco any way you slice it. The transversed countries in this story have troubles of their own, and nobody wants to see their crops trampled or their small town overrun. Naturally, local resources are overwhelmed, and it’s not as though the EU nations of entry are doing that great economically.
But you don’t have to be Mahatma Ghandi to see that roughing up women with children in their arms just isn’t right.
Remember that the root causes of this fiasco are even bigger fiascos. Maybe mass migration of this kind, which after all has been part of the human experience since there have been humans, is best understood as a force of nature. Anything alive tries to stay that way; why would hundreds of thousands of war survivors be any different?
Would you try to stop a hurricane by detaining it? Or building a fence?
This particular force of nature is driven by unique individuals. Hungary’s fresh imprint on my memory isn’t the only reason this crisis packs such an emotional wallop. I now count among my friends several Balkan emigrés who went through the refugee experience in the 1990s. Once you personally know a former refugee, you can no longer, for example, look at Syrians kept in battery-hen conditions on the Hungarian border and see an indistinguishable mass.
The media responsible for relaying these images would make no profit from taking the long view, and the long view is that these people whom they depict as unrelenting hordes of filthy wretches will—with the help of an intelligent host country and/or through their own luck and pluck—eventually stop being refugees. They will start businesses. They will go to school. They will marry, begin families, and re-integrate into society. The only difference between you and a refugee is that he or she was interrupted by history.
At this writing, the EU will meet in a few days to try to sort out, among other issues, a more coordinated response to the crisis. As an American, I’m thinking about my connection to the refugees coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, our own refugee crisis on the Mexican border as scores of women and children flee gang violence in Latin America, and this summer’s brutality in our own cities.
We can no longer deny our residence in an epoch of upheaval, especially as we all contemplate the long-term spectre of climate migrancy. This moment is a crucial opportunity for people everywhere to wake up. Democracy is not a law passed but a life lived—by individuals, communities, and nations. We can no longer cruise on cultural autopilot. If we’re to have a future with any carryover of humanist ideals and constitutional rights it will take much more than—as plenty have suggested—simply rejecting or just wiping out those who don’t check your particular box under Religious Identification.
I don’t expect that one more American joining a human rights group will promptly change the world. But I do believe in duty and responsibility. If we treat people like animals, the whole world becomes one big nasty zoo. We must do better, and quickly.
Let’s talk about it.