I know what it’s like to be considered “the other”. I remember the shoves and elbows in the hallway. I can still hear the snide comments made in a threatening tone so that only I could hear them. I remember the fights resulting from verbal and physical abuse where the principal blamed us both, never acknowledging the misbehavior of my abuser. I was a Jewish kid from New York in school in Asheville, North Carolina during the 1950s. To be both Jewish and a Yankee made me twice as undesirable. They didn’t know who I was, only what I was. Their hatred wasn’t based on any particular characteristic I displayed. They didn’t know whether I was smart or funny or caring or clever. They just hated me and the rest of the Jews who lived in Asheville because of what we were. They displayed all of the characteristics of xenophobia. Of course they hated more than just Jews. They hated blacks and Latinos and Asians and frankly anyone who was different. Given their druthers they would have packed us all in buses or trains and shipped us off to somewhere else, anywhere else, just away from them.
In America we have had a long history of xenophobic behavior. Despite the lessons of history and the platitudes we proudly sing and say, many in this country are simply haters. It so happens that we are in the midst of the perfect hater’s storm: a presidential campaign in which the Republican candidates continue to dive deeper and deeper towards the lowest common denominator and a series of terrorist attacks that provides “evidence” to prove the correctness of their xenophobic rants. These events also give impetus to calls for greater restrictions on immigration and the decision to refuse to accept refugees from the Syrian nightmare. Dozens of Republican governors have already stated their refusal to accept Syrian refugees into their states. Murdock has called for a litmus test to only accept Christian Syrian refugees. Donald Trump has called for all mosques to be closed. Fear and ignorance are the fuel that makes it possible for such pronouncements to appear respectable and acceptable. Is that what America has become?
I understand the fear of a future terrorist attack. It would be irrational to ignore that possibility particularly in light of the recent threats made by ISIS. I am also well aware that the primary perpetrators of terror around the world are Islamic Fundamentalists. It is also a fact that they represent an extremely small fraction of the world’s Muslim population. They are the corrupters of Islam, not the norm. Yet one candidate after another has called for extreme reaction and action against an entire religion. How should we restrict the Muslim population in America to protect ourselves? Should we allow them to live in only specific areas? Should we only allow them to work at specific jobs? Should we require them to register as aliens and monitor their movements and bank accounts? Should we limit their access to firearms and explosives? Should we limit their opportunities to congregate in groups? In other words, should we allow the fear that there might be a “lone wolf” among that population change who we are as Americans and what our country has come to stand for around the world? Please don’t tell me that we would never do that. Remember the Japanese internment camps? Remember the institutionalized discrimination against blacks.? We as a nation are capable of greatness. However, our past and present also show that we are capable of perpetrating horror. The extreme result of xenophobia is genocide. History has proven that it starts with small steps that appear reasonable and goes on from there.
While we are fearful of the horror that might come to our shores, we cannot allow that fear to corrupt who we are. We must demand that our government take all steps, within the law, to protect us. But we must not let our fear allow the sweetness of freedom to turn into the stench of oppression.