Following September 11, 2001, as we went to war to battle terrorism in lands many of us couldn’t have pointed to on a map before hand, we also began to battle another enemy here at home. It’s an internal struggle with an internal enemy that wields a weapon that, unlike terrorism itself, has the power to destroy the nation we all love. The enemy is hatred, its weapon is the manipulation of fear, and it’s a struggle that affects us all. In the weeks, months, and years since that clear, cool September morning, we have allowed hatred to manipulate our fears and to turn American against American, reciting rhetoric about who is a “real American,” and to strip of us of our Constitutional rights, passing such laws as the Patriot Act and NDAA. Since that unexpected and heartbreaking morning, we have allowed our fellow Americans to suffer hate crimes and discrimination at the hands of bigots, to have their Constitutionally protected religious exercise threatened by xenophobes, and to be propagandized as the epitome of religious fanaticism. Since that mournful day we have created a new “other,” a new group of Americans to scapegoat and shun: The Muslim. And it is a shameful violation of our heritage.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental principal of the US. The Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, is the foundation upon which this nation was built; it is the reason the US became, and still is for many, the destination for immigrants from all over the world. When the Jews of Eastern Europe began suffering from the violent pogroms of the late 18th and early 19th century, those who fled chose America because they knew that here they’d find some measure of protection. When people, who dared to speak out against the abuses of their leaders in places like the USSR, Cuba, or Sierra Leone, sought refuge they came to the US where free-speech was protected.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve never been perfect. There have been times in the past, much like now, when we have forgotten what makes us a great nation; when a religious, ethnic, or political group was singled out, marginalized, and persecuted. For example, fear of Catholicism was one of the driving forces behind immigration quotas against the number of certain European groups who could emigrate to the US; it was called National Origins Act of 1927, and it targeted Southern and Eastern Europeans, like the Italians, the Greeks, and the Polish, who were predominately Catholic. In fact, for much of our history Americans, who have been predominately protestant, willingly marginalized Catholics; hatred and distrust was so strong that JFK had to publicly promise that his allegiance lay with the US and not with the Pope. And during WWII, following the attack of Pearl Harbor, we allowed fear of being attacked again to give the government the power to round up over 100,000 Americans of Japanese decent, across the West Coast, and place them in internment camps, violating their civil rights. Several times in our history we have, out of fear, allowed our free-speech to be limited; for example, during WWI, the fear of communism was so strong that we caved to it and allowed the US government, under the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, to round up US citizens for simply voicing criticism of the government.
So, as you can see, this is not the first time we have faced this foe as a nation. It is not the first time that we have relented to it in the face of fear. But that does not make it ok, in fact it makes it worse. Why? Because we have been here and done this enough times to know better, to be better than what we have become. We have allowed xenophobia against Islam to erode so much of what makes this nation something of which to be proud, chief amongst them being the provisions of our First Amendment. Of this we should be ashamed and we should fight against it. This is why knowing our true history — the good, the bad, the triumphant, and the shameful — is so profoundly important. In learning from those times past we have the tools necessary to build an even stronger nation. In knowing the past we are less likely to repeat those mistakes with a new “other;” rather, we would be encouraged to strive even harder to protect the rights of *all* Americans and to endeavor to marginalize bigotry and hatred instead of our fellow citizens.