On the morning of December 7, 1941 bombs from Japanese fighter planes began raining down on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The US was suddenly dragged into war with Japan and its axis partners, Germany and Italy. Less than three months later, amid rampant fear of the Japanese threat
and armed with faulty intelligence, President Roosevelt signed resolution 9066 authorizing the designation of certain areas as military zones – a move that would eventually lead to the internment of over 120,000 ethnic Japanese living in the US. Interned Japanese were forced to live in squalid, degrading conditions for the duration of the war. Decades later Ronald Reagan would sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, acknowledging that the war-time internment was a mistake and granting reparations to those affected.
As WWII came to a close, the US faced a new threat: the Soviet Union, with its alien Communist ideology and territorial ambitions. There was widespread fear that the US government would be infiltrated by Communist forces who would take control from within. In this tense atmosphere, the House Committee on un-American Activities was
established as a standing committee with the task of investigating “suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that attacked “the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution.” Among this committee’s ‘accomplishments’ included the Hollywood Blacklist, which led to over 300 artists in the film industry being denied employment because they were suspected of being Communist sympathizers.
It was the early 1930s, in the waning days of the Weimar Germany. The country was reeling under the humiliating treatment from the Treaty
of Versailles. Periods of hyperinflation over the past decade had caused tremendous economic pain, and the onset of the Great Depression led to drastic increases in the unemployment rate. People were angry and desperate. Along came a man who offered a path back to greatness, who laid the blame for the country’s troubles on others, in particular, the Jews.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about history recently. Particularly since I wrote my last post, in which I criticized Rick Perry and praised Islam (albeit one particular moment in Islamic history, and one particular aspect of Rick Perry’s character). Although I had intended merely to provoke thought and discussion, as one commenter noted, my post was perceived by many to be utterly inflammatory. The bulk of the furious comments focused on the evil of Islam, and how no one could ever possibly look to it as a source of anything positive. As one commenter put it:
I am looking for a (presidential) candidate that speaks ill of ISLAM at every turn myself..that means they are not afraid to speak the truth.
After receiving over 100 comments like this on a local online paper where I also publish my posts, I decided to pause and try to understand the perspective of these commenters.
I thought about how I’d felt on September 11, 2001, 7 months pregnant with my first child, in uptown Manhattan not knowing which of my friends who worked downtown were still alive, or when my husband –stranded on a business trip to Colorado – would be able to get home.
I thought about how I’d felt commuting to Manhattan over the past decade, wondering every time the terror alert changed color if today would be the day that the next terror plot would be successful.
And I thought about my family in Israel, and how I worry about what the seismic political changes in the Middle East will mean for them.
I thought about all the people I know who have been out of work for over a year, who have given up hope.
And I got it.
I understand American fear of Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I understand American fear of Communism during the Cold War.
I understand German anger and frustration in the 1930s.
And today, I understand (and experience) fear of radical Muslim terrorists. I understand (and feel) the pain of the economic crises in the US and Europe.
But what I DON’T understand, and what I can not accept, is how this fear and anger has led many Americans to condemn an entire group of people. I can’t understand how Americans – particularly religious Americans – can dismiss an entire faith tradition about which they know so little (see footnote below). I can’t understand how some Americans have confused patriotism with xenophobia, as was done on the official Pearl Harbor website.
Finally, I can’t understand how so many Americans can ignore the lesson of history:
When fear leads us to demonize the Other, the result is evil.
All I can think of is the words of FDR in his first inaugural address:
…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror….
It seems to me that ten years after 9/11, too many of us have let fear overwhelm our capacity to reason and learn. And that makes me scared.
Footnote: Here are some stats and thoughts regarding some Americans ignorance of and bias towards Muslims:
- According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 43% of Americans admitted to feeling some prejudice towards Muslims (the highest percentage of all the religions included in the poll question).
- According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, almost half – 47% of Americans – say they know ‘nothing or not much about “the opinions and beliefs of people who live in Muslim countries”‘.
- In the Pew Forum’s 2010 US Religious Knowledge survey, 46% of US respondents did not know that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, 48% did not know what Ramadan is and 73% did not know that Indonesians are mostly Muslim (although Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population).
Finally, I would just encourage those who think they know about Islam based on looking at a few radical websites or videos on YouTube to consider this: would it be accurate if someone decided to condemn all American Christians based on the website of the Westboro Baptist Church?