How did we let it get to this?

Look again. Confront your own prejudice.

  1. I’m on an airplane on my way to Burning Man (more on that soon,) an attempt to create a new culture, where all forms of expression are embraced, and all members try not to define each other within the normal boundaries of our society.
  2. This morning on my way to the post office, I passed an unusually lively area populated by women in burkas and signed in Arabic. I’ve lived in Times Square and traveled on many airplanes, and it was the first time I’d ever thought so much about attack, not by a “radical Muslim” but against a Muslim community.
  3. In the airport I saw two people delayed for extended screening; one was wearing a turban and the other traditional Muslim dress. I passed a newsstand and saw that the cover of Time Magazine reads “Is America Islamophobic?” Yes, yes it is.
  4. Two days ago a drunk white guy slashed a taxi driver’s face and chest with a knife, screaming expletives. Yesterday a man “barged into a Queens mosque and shouted anti-Muslim slurs at the congregation during the nightly Tarawee prayers. He then proceeded to urinate on the prayer rugs and gave congregants the finger. The cab driver, and many others, are saying that they feel unsafe and lost.
  5. These incidents are as scary as they are unsurprising, and as sad as they are not the last of their kind. The debate over a mosque near Ground Zero is not the cause of this furor, it is merely one of its many symptoms.

The terror, anger, and intolerance that took root in the wake of 9/11 has seeped into and saturated every corner of the United States, and it is shameful to see a growing realization of this cancer. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been associated with the Tea Party movement and more radical fringes of the Republican party (witness the cries that Obama was a Muslim, which aside from being untrue contained the idea that being a Muslim was a terrible thing.) It is also an infection of those who disguise their racism in high-minded rhetoric. The first group is hopeless; I am speaking to the second.

It is a natural human instinct to separate people into distinct groups – Republicans and Democrats, gays and straights, Jews and Muslims, etc. It simplifies our world as we enlarge the perceived differences between groups and shrink those within groups. But in doing this, we commit a greater sin than we know; anyone who passes judgment on all individuals of a group based on the actions of a few is committing the grievous sin of punishing innocent people for the crimes of others.

It’s like little kids squabbling. Blindly reacting to the situation right in front of them, they fight furiously over things large and small. They are weak because they allow themselves to to be incited so easily. Look at our society from a wider perspective and see how easy we have made it for a small issue like the placement of a mosque to derail the world. Look at how WEAK our bigotry has made us. Then ask if you want to be a party to this kind of a world that can so quickly go to the brink of insanity.

Our country was built on radical principles of human rights and respect and it is only by strict, unwavering adherence to these principles that we can guard against the sly erosion of respect and dignity for all. I am pessimistic about the future of prejudice and do not think this is something we can ever come close to eradicating, but I see that fighting each battle produces real and important results. We can try for a world of infinite tolerance even if we settle for one that is only a little better, and we must try. It is clear to me that if we allow ourselves to hate and be unjust, that is when the terrorists win.

My anti-terrorist manifesto is well expressed in a letter written by George Washington 220 years ago this past Saturday. Writing to Moses Seixas of the newly founded Touro Synagogue in Newport, who expressed his extreme gratitude at being allowed free practice of his religion, Washington said:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I have no tolerance for people who persecute in the name of tact, based on some generalized idea of those people as evil and their presence as offensive. Let us presume our fellow citizens as acting in good faith until they show us otherwise. Let us end racially based screening at airports and everywhere else, no matter what we believe statistics or precedent shows. Let us not condemn 1.5 billion people because of the actions of 1,000.




One Comment to “How did we let it get to this?”

  1. How did we let it get to this? – (via @mikemorgenstern)

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