On April 18th, organizers of the Boston Marathon followed through on their resolution to prohibit Russian and Belarusian competitors from participating in one of the most prestigious annual athletic events in the United States. Two days later, organizers of the Wimbledon tennis championships announced the enactment of a similar ban on all athletes from Russia and Belarus. And while these decisions generated a modicum of opposition, they also appeared to satisfy the general public, which largely responded with apathetic acceptance.
In spite of a notable lack of widespread concern, however, the implications of barring people on the basis of their national origin are obviously disturbing, and the precedent established by excluding individuals in response to the transgressions of their governments is ominous. Even more troubling, these were not isolated incidents. Taken together, they indicate an emerging — and troubling — trend.
That developing pattern is concerning because it reveals an attitude that is demonstrably dehumanizing: an attitude that reduces the complexity of human identity to the meaningless happenstance of birth country, that denies human individuality by falsely amalgamating and “othering” entire groups of people due to characteristics and associations outside of their control, and that devalues each member of those groups by connecting their worth and dignity to their extrinsic traits.
This is not a new idea. It is the very same one that has informed and undergirded many of the atrocities committed throughout human history. In the United States in 1942, this fundamentally dangerous line of reasoning engendered the policy of Japanese internment, wherein the U.S. government detained Japanese American citizens without warrants and incarcerated them without due process throughout the first half of World War II. The justification? Because the Japanese military had attacked Pearl Harbor and initiated an aggressive Pacific campaign against the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors determined that all people of Japanese descent represented a significant threat to national security and could be held personally accountable for the crimes of the Japanese government. “The Japanese race is an enemy race,” remarked Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, who headed the Western Defense Command under President Roosevelt, “[and] the racial strains are undiluted.” And thus, the United States did not simply go to war with the empire of Japan, but waged a violent and discriminatory war against Japanese men, women, and children everywhere. They did so because they were incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the conduct of state actors and the actions of innocent people.
Russian and Belarusian civilians are not being seized and imprisoned, but individual people are increasingly subjected to ostracism: punished for misdeeds in which they had no part and, in fact, may ardently oppose. A desire for misguided retribution has clearly taken root, and it must be dispelled before it progresses any further.
Make no mistake: the governments of Russia and Belarus have perpetrated unspeakably horrific acts. They have violated the autonomy of a sovereign nation. They have deliberately targeted civilian populations and reportedly engaged in the summary execution of noncombatants. The Russo-Ukrainian War has yielded profound evil.
Can individual Russian and Belarusian people be held responsible for this evil? Those who claim that they can must answer some difficult questions. Why was a U.S. national soccer team included in the 2010 FIFA World Cup shortly after the leaked Collateral Murder videotape, Afghan War Diary, and Iraq War Logs exposed the extent of U.S. war crimes? Why were individual American competitors permitted to compete in both the Boston Marathon and Wimbledon in 2016, mere months after the U.S. military bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital and murdered 42 people inside? If individual people ought to be punished for the wrongdoing of governments and state actors, how is it possible that individual Americans are included in the international community?
The unconditional and indiscriminate proscription of Russian and Belarusian citizens is as unethical as it is hypocritical. It is immoral because it robs people of their individual value and agency by implicitly defining them in terms of the group to which they belong: isolating and banishing individual people solely because of their nationality, and inflaming tribalistic tensions. It is inconsistent because it is not the standard by which individual people are typically evaluated under other circumstances.
The world must stand together against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it also must stand against bigotry that serves only to inflict harm upon innocent people and to exacerbate the partisan divides that have yielded this crisis.