On Monday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), aka “AOC,” opined in an Instagram Live video that “the United States is running concentration camps on our southern border.” Her comments sparked controversy across the political spectrum and the internet: while Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) engaged in a heated Twitter exchange with AOC, Democrats are divided over the comparison, and historians have weighed in on the issue.
Her comments implied that the Trump administration—and, by extension, the Republican Party—is comparable to Adolph Hitler’s regime in Germany (1933-1945). Such analogies are dangerous, argues Dr. Edna Friedberg, a historian associated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse[,] [a]t a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever.” By demonizing the political right rather than offering proactive solutions, AOC merely stokes the flames of an already-divisive issue.
For the record, such vitriolic partisan rhetoric is not the way forward on this or any other issue.Regardless of one’s opinion about AOC’s rhetoric, however, it is clear that questions of human dignity are deeply important and divisive, regardless of one’s political affiliation. This is hardly the first time in history that the separation of families at a border has sparked controversy, however.
On October 12, 1989, Blanco Orcasio-Cortez and Sergio Ocasio welcomed their baby girl, Alexandria, into the world. Less than a month later, on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell.
Since 1961, the Wall had represented the Iron Curtain of Soviet Communism that covered half of Europe in the wake of World War II, much to the chagrin of such modern prophets as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American General George S. Patton, Jr. For almost three decades, the Wall had separated East and West Berliners from one another. Worse still, it not only divided citizens of that historic city—it divided families.
Just as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez laments the separation of migrant families entering the United States, many decried the Berlin Wall’s symbolic and actual properties as a barrier between human beings. The freshman representative from New York loathes “the fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free,” just as those behind and outside the Iron Curtain abhorred the gulags of the Soviet system. Both Ocasio-Cortez and the detractors of Soviet Communism would, did, and do argue that the systems they protest are fundamentally evil because they degrade basic human dignity.
As noted above, the Berlin Wall fell in early November, 1989. Far more than the destruction of a man-made barrier, however, this event encapsulated a far more important process: the crumbling of Soviet Communism at that same time. The oppressive system that had plagued Europe and haunted world politics for the past four decades was finally coming to an end, just as Ocasio-Cortez’s life was beginning.
But how did we arrive at this moment? What brought the Wall down?
Volumes have and will be written in response to those questions, and it would be an exercise in futility to catalog those responses here. A crucial element in the fall of Soviet Communism—one often overlooked by historians—was the unlikely partnership of a pope and a president, in what they called “the Divine Plan.”
The Divine Plan (or “DP”) was, in the view of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the providential plan for the defeat of Communism. Having survived nearly-successful assassination attempts within six weeks of each other, these two men believed they had been brought through similar near-death experiences to achieve their common aim. They saw their similar circumstances not as mere coincidence, but as an indication of providential intervention in history.
Why did Reagan and John Paul II have such disdain for Soviet Communism? They saw that the godless model of Communist society deprived humans under that system of their essential dignity as persons. This was a matter of deep personal conviction for both men. The pope, who held two PhDs (one in philosophy and the other in sacred theology), was a deeply thoughtful humanist. He articulated his strong views on human dignity and action in his magnum opus, The Acting Person (1969) and his papal encyclicals.
Though not a trained philosopher, President Reagan also held strong beliefs about human dignity, anchored by his commitment to the “twin beacons of faith and freedom.” Reagan firmly believed that “freedom cannot exist alone” without faith. Because the Soviet Union suppressed both, he famously branded it an “Evil Empire.”
Communism’s disregard for the dignity of human life was a stench in the two men’s nostrils, and both believed they were meant to eradicate it; but how?
Walking to his motorcade after delivering a speech to the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest by John Hinckley, a young man who had deluded himself into thinking that he could win the attention of actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed. The bullet nearly killed the president, missing his heart by mere centimeters. Six weeks later, on May 13, in a Communist-backed assassination attempt, Mehmet Ali Agca of Turkey shot the pope in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City, on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. Agca’s bullet hit John Paul II in the stomach, barely missing his main abdominal artery.
Had the bullets reached those targets, both Reagan and the pope likely would have bled to death before reaching the hospital. These near-death experiences—this shared suffering—forged a singular bond between the pope and the president. Even before the shootings, John Paul II and Reagan had sensed their philosophical kinship. Before he ever became president, Reagan had identified the pope as an essential ally, someone who shared his principled aversion to Communism and could help rescue the millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Despite their apparent differences—one was a Protestant, the other the leading Catholic—the pope and the president resolved together to combat Communism in the early 1980s. Before a decade had passed, Soviet Communism crumbled. What changed? What had they done to further the Divine Plan?
Just as President Reagan and Pope John Paul II cooperated to combat Communism, our nation’s most pressing challenges can and must be met with a bipartisan attitude of collaboration. The way to fix our country’s immigration challenges is not through sharp one-minute soundbites like that offered by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez; rather, Americans of all stripes must remember that our differences of opinion—and our freedom to peacefully express those differences—is what makes America, and perhaps the West, unique. Only then can we aspire to the principle of E pluribus unum.
Robert Orlando is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. He has been involved in the production, development, or release of more than a dozen film and documentary projects. Orlando wrote and directed the documentary "The Divine Plan."
- Robert Orlando