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Europe's Long History Can Handcuff Its People


For the last two years, NPR's Ari Shapiro has been our international correspondent based in London. Now he's coming home. Tomorrow, he begins a new job as a host of All Things Considered. As he was packing up his London apartment, Ari sent us this essay.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: As soon as I got here, I realized that to people in Europe, the phrase American history kind of an oxymoron. I arrived in London as the city was marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. To commemorate that, an artist planted a sea of ceramic red poppies in the Tower of London moat. The tower is roughly a thousand years old. That's history.

In Sweden, I met a woman whose family has been fishing the same waters for at least 500 years. In the states, we're lucky if we can trace our family's back 100 years. That long past helps European countries understand who they are, but history can also be handcuffs. As refugees come to Europe escaping war zones, some countries are putting up walls to protect their national sense of self. There are welcoming places like Sweden, which has taken in more refugees per capita than almost any other country. But even there, a xenophobic far-right party has become hugely popular, warning that Sweden risks losing its Swedishness.

It's a cliche to say that America is a nation of immigrants. Relatively speaking, we're all newcomers. And of course the U.S. has plenty of xenophobia, too. There are lots of concerns about illegal immigration across the southern border, but the American story is one of constant change and adaptation. It helps that the U.S. has enormous buffer zones to its east and west. Thousands of miles of water insulate Americans from most of the upheaval in other parts of the world.

That insulation can be an advantage but it also means the U.S. can be cloistered. Though we are protected, we can also be myopic. War is a thing that happens in foreign places to foreign people. Most Americans will never leave the country and it's hard to blame them. The distance from San Francisco to New York is 3,000 miles. Travel the same distance from London and you're in Moscow or Damascus, having crossed up to a dozen countries on the way.

Obviously, global forces shape the U.S. An ocean doesn't stand in the way of climate change or global trade or pandemic disease. But for the last two years here in Europe, the U.S. has looked to me a bit like a snow globe, swirling, changing and also contained, relatively untroubled by the burdens of history. Ari Shapiro, NPR News - one last time - London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.