America and Americans definitely have a dark side. Our history is laced with hatreds, fears, and prejudices that resulted in acts that embarrass us today – and that’s our saving grace. We try to recognize those errors of judgment and actions so as to not repeat them.
The Native Americans confronted an invasion of English immigrants that resulted in their land being taken from them. The English colonists even paid bounties for Indian scalps. The great Civil War cavalry officer Philip Sheridan said that the only good Indian he ever saw was dead. The genocide of our original inhabitants haunts us still.
The peculiar institution of slavery, which contradicted our birthday document written by slave owner Thomas Jefferson, was based on a racism that we still have not entirely conquered even though we elected a black man as President of the United States. I know several people who have never accepted Barack Obama as their president simply because he’s black. You probably know some, too.
After Pearl Harbor, the hatred of Japan led to the fear of Japanese-Americans – whether naturalized citizens or born in the U.S. With no evidence of treason and no conviction of crimes, they were rounded up, deprived of their professions and property, and placed in internment camps. True, they were not placed in slave labor or extermination camps, but they were interned nevertheless. And this injustice was approved by one of our three greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The fear of communism dominated the first ten years after WWII. Republican control of Congress led to the witch-hunts for communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy’s Senate sub-committee. Movie actors, writers, and directors who were involved in movies depicting topics of anti-war, racism, or injustice in America were investigated. The Hollywood Ten went to prison and were blacklisted for refusing to testify. McCarthyism came to mean “guilt by association.” Since McCarthy never found a communist in colleges or in the state and defense departments, he destroyed his victims by connecting them to friends, acquaintances, publications, or organizations that were suspect. This relentless assault on the Bill of Rights was one of the darkest and scariest times for all our citizens.
Prejudice against gays and lesbians has been a more recent example of a particular segment of our society being targeted for legalized discrimination. The Defense of Marriage Act, Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell, and anti-same-sex marriage amendments to state constitutions established restrictions to the rights of specific American citizens who posed no threat to others.
After 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney, appropriately known as Darth Vader, publicly stated that our dark side was needed to deal with terrorism. He used our fear and hatred to justify the use of waterboarding, secret CIA sites in countries that would use torture, and indefinite imprisonment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. The Bush-Cheney administration also used 950 documented lies to frighten the Congress and public into approving the invasion of Iraq.
All of the above are ostensibly against everything we claim to stand for: liberty and justice for all.
Now, because of ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, domestic terrorism, and the refugee flight from Syria, we see a backlash against Muslim-Americans and Muslims in general – not only against the bloodthirsty extremists. The game plan of ISIS is to get American leaders and their followers to target all Muslims’ rights so that ISIS looks better to other Muslims than we do.
Republican presidential candidates and 27 governors (26 Republicans and 1 Democrat) stampeded into panic mode by appealing to our dark side. Consequently, their Muslim xenophobia is reacting right into the hands of ISIS. Effectively, they are helping ISIS recruit more terrorists.
The 27 governors announced that they wanted no Syrian refugees relocated in their states. I’m sorry to say, this includes my state of Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson. Marco Rubio thinks we should shut down all Muslim cafés and diners. He also has said that the fight against ISIS is a “clash of civilizations” –western civilization v. Islamic civilization. Jeb! Bush wants to restrict refugees to only those who are Christian. John Kasich wants to create a federal agency that will promote Judeo-Christian western values.
The worst, of course, are the two demagogues: Ted Cruz – who resembles Joe McCarthy – and Donald Trump – an apparent fascist who sounds like Hitler and, without the hair, would look like Mussolini. Sen. Cruz wants to carpet bomb Iraq and Syria with no regard for civilian casualties! The Donald wants to shut down U.S. mosques or at least place them under surveillance, require registration of our 3 million Muslims and require them to carry an ID denoting their religion, and prevent all Muslims from entering the country.
None of them are suggesting anything that might have a positive effect: (1) closing Guantanamo, which is a primary recruiting tool for terrorists and (2) making it illegal for those on the terrorist watch list to buy guns – between 2004 and 2014, 2000 suspects did so.
These governors and candidates have forgotten who we are and the diversity from which we come. I suggest they do as I did last summer: Go to New York City. Take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty. Read the poem by Emma Lazarus. Climb the narrow, spiral staircase to the crown (I took one step at a time, grabbing the rail with both hands and eventually pulling my way to the top). Re-board the ferry and get off at Ellis Island where millions of Americans can trace their ancestry. Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and see how immigrants lived and worked (I took three different tours).
I also suggest they go see the new Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I know these presidential hopefuls and 27 governors probably rooted for Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force in the previous six installments, but, just maybe, they might be converted this time. Besides, since the original stars are back, this episode might even be as entertaining as the three original episodes were 30-40 years ago.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 11, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.