Opinion: Merrick Garland ties together the threads of democracy

New York Times photo / U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island in New York on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022

Some of us remember being taught to crouch beneath our school desks for protection in the event of a nuclear attack in the early 1960s.

Those small desks, while sturdier then than now, wouldn't have been much protection during those days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nor could they be now if Russian President Vladimir Putin takes out his anguish over his stumbling war effort in Ukraine with nuclear weapons, something he hinted at in a speech Wednesday as he announced the mobilization of thousands more men to the war-torn country that has embarrassed him with its pursuit of freedom and democracy.

The war in Ukraine adds another layer of concern and complexity to our world -- both good and bad. As concerning as the threat of nuclear war may be, the reminder of humankind's yearning to breathe free and grow is always welcome.

Just look at the level of support here for Ukraine and its people, both in America and in Chattanooga.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Global Education is an perfect example. The center's executive director, Takeo Suzuki, recently told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Russia's invasion of Ukraine had barely begun when his former UTC students who had returned home there texted him.

"When I asked what I could do for them, everyone just said, 'Pray for us, think of us,'" Suzuki said, "except one – she wanted weapons and arms. This person looks like a regular college student, the last person you'd think would say something like that. I couldn't respond. I couldn't sleep."

But he did do something. He went the next day to see UTC Chancellor Steve Angle. After more talks, the resultant program launched in April and offered $600 per month and free tuition, room and board to two Ukrainian students wanting to pursue master's degrees in public administration, business administration, computer science or engineering management.

Now 23-year-old Arsen Martyshchuk is here studying public administration, and Nina Klimenkova, 21, is enrolled in computer science. Both plan to take their training and skills back home.

"They're seed for the future," Suzuki told the TFP.

More, they are seeds for democracy -- here, in Ukraine and the rest of the world.

Of course, we have to wonder: Why is the welcome for these very worthy Ukrainian students different from the welcome -- let's say it; unwelcome -- in Texas, Arizona, Florida and even Tennessee, for those seeking asylum from other torn countries, like Venezuela and Guatamala?

To the contrary, too many American politicians -- primarily far-right Republican ones -- have welcomed polarization rather than people. We've all seen the news of the GOP governors busing and flying these South American refugees -- unannounced and with trickery -- to Washington, New York, Martha's Vineyard, offloading them on so-called liberal locales in hopes of "owning the libs." Never mind the cruelty of using penniless, frightened and vulnerable fellow human beings.

For the most part, the liberals largely responded the same way UTC did -- with aid and grace.

When Tennessee Republican politicians decried unaccompanied migrant children flown "in the dark of night" to a Chattanooga shelter, they pointed at Joe Biden's "failed" immigration policy. Wait. The policy was approved by then Republican President Donald Trump and the shelter was OKed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

But the damage was done.

Last month, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and his staff defanged a similar outcry when Lone Star charter buses passed through here on the way to northern cities.

When the busses stopped here to change drivers, some desperate asylum seekers, many from Venezuela, got off, looking for help, directions and a way closer to safety. Our city, like other towns blindsided by the heartless GOP "joke," coordinated a response.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland tied the threads of danger to democracy together for us last Saturday as he spoke to newly naturalized U.S. citizens at Ellis Island in New York. It was their first day as Americans, and it also was the 235th anniversary of the day when 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed their names to the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Each of those 39 delegates also were relatively new Americans, Garland said. "In fact, America had only existed for 11 years," he said.

"Like you, those Americans had great hopes for their own future - and for the future of their new country. ... to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Like them, each of you has now made a commitment not only to this nation and your fellow Americans, but to the generations of Americans who will come after you."

Woven into that speech, Garland talked about the rule of law that applies to all of us. All of us.

And he warned of allowing polarization to fracture us and to fracture our democracy.

"We are all in this together," he said. "We are all Americans. ... Thank you for choosing America as your home. Thank you for the courage, dedication and work that has brought you here. Thank you for all you will do to help our country live up to its highest ideals. Thank you on behalf of a nation that is fortunate to call you as its citizens. And thank you on behalf of the generations of Americans who will come after you. Thank you."

Find this speech and watch it. It will renew your hope.