The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

This has been on my mind today, as I’ve been reading too much about the blinkered reactions to the horrible events in Paris. Despite the rhetoric from many of our politicians, I don’t think this is a war that can be won by bombs or guns. Invading Syria and Iraq may damage Daesh, but it won’t change the fact of the death cult that they and others have been cultivating for decades. After all, it’s looking increasingly like all of the attackers in Paris were EU citizens. Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi.

And for the sake of a horror inflicted by a few, we would magnify that horror by shutting out the poor, starving, and war-weary. That won’t win this war either. A starving, stateless mass, bombed out of their homes and rejected by the free peoples of the world is a loss in and of itself. Not to mention the coup it provides Daesh’s propagandists.

Bombs won’t win this war, because the enemy isn’t attacking us from Syria or Iraq. They’re attacking us from Belgium and Saudi Arabia. Keeping out refugees won’t help, because Daesh is recruiting from our societies directly.

So this is not a war of bombs, and it’s not a war of migration.

Everything I see tells me that this is a war of ideas and culture. Perhaps of a kind not fought before in human history. This is the first war of a world where communications are instant and ubiquitous. And the only way to win it is to prove that free, open societies are better than the closed, fearful, backward one that Daesh wants to create.

And we don’t prove that by turning our backs on the refugees of Daesh’s horror. Quite the opposite. We win this war by offering a hand to those that Daesh turned out. We make sure they know that where Daesh destroyed their homes and livelihoods, we will gladly let them build new homes as our neighbor. So that the whole world can see that free societies are immune to the evil perpetrated by monsters like Daesh.

We win by showing that terrorists can kill people. Who we will mourn, and avenge with careful, decisive, swift action. But that after, our societies will be just as free and open as they were before. And ultimately the provocateurs will have accomplished nothing.

All the while we welcome with open arms those fleeing the horror that Daesh is creating, and help them to build their new lives in a free country.

I suppose I can’t guarantee that that’s what wins this war. But I think it’s got a much better chance than bombs. And if we give up our liberty and compassion, I’m not sure how much winning the war would even matter.