Saturday, December 12, 2015

Islamophobia, the Red Scare and Donald Trump. Inspired by Reading Murray B. Levin.

In April of 1919, US postal officials discovered thirty-six bombs had been mailed to prominent politicians and industrialists throughout the United States. On June 2, 1919, a more successful effort through the mail produced eight explosions across the US. (Levin, pp. 32-4). These bombings were presented to  the public as a foreign-inspired Bolshevik plot. (Levin, p. 1). The public was understandably alarmed. A number of politicians used the opportunity to initiate the nation’s first Red Scare. Thousands of foreigners were deported. Offices of radical organizations were raided by federal agents. (Levin, pp. 52-3). Conservative politicians like Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer (the individual who ordered the raids) attempted to increase their personal power. Palmer used the publicity to launch a bid for the Presidency of the United States. (Levin, p 72).

Sound familiar? Replace Bolshevik with Islamic, and Palmer with Trump, and you have the USA in 2015. Have we learned so little about fear? Do we automatically revert to an irrational defensive posture which violates the rights of citizens and improves the circumstances of demagogic conservative politicians? Though I am sure that I could write an article of popular opinion, excoriating Trump for his fear-mongering, the truth is that Trump would not be successful without an ignorant public who is unaware of their history, their prejudices and themselves. It’s easy to point at Trump and say that he is the problem. But these epidemics of fear occur periodically in the United States against some foreign or “un-American” source. It results in our putting safety before human rights and oppressing a class of people. This time the target is Muslims.  Yes, there are some terrorist attacks occurring by some Muslims. But a large section of US citizenry, in one of its characteristic fits of anxiety, is failing to properly assess the risk. Saying that we should prevent Muslims from entering the country because of terrorism, is like saying that we should keep library cards out of the hands of Southern Baptists because they’re just going to burn  the  books; or that we should keep white teenage boys out of high school because they’re just going to go crazy and shoot-up the place. The large majority of Southern Baptists, white teenage boys and Muslim Americans are law-abiding, rational people. Far more rational than Trump’s noisy minions.

What is needed is a dispassionate discourse, not an emotional reaction. And this is what we should be demanding of our politicians. It has been said too often that terrorism relies upon fear to win. Too often because so many citizens are not listening and the message bears repeating. If you react out of fear, they win. The losers will be innocent citizens, our Bill of Rights, and you. If we can take a collective breath and begin examining the many reasonable options for curtailing violence, we will be able to produce a plan that balances civil liberties with safety. 

We must tread carefully. We must fully examine each proposal designed to prevent attacks. If, in  the process of securing the safety of our nation, we undermine the Constitution and  violate our laws, there will be no America as we know it, to defend. For example, we currently have a no-fly list for people whom we suspect could perform terrorist acts. If this limitation is fully vetted, and found to be constitutional, then the list may have other useful safety applications. Logically, if an individual is such  a danger to the US populace that their freedom to travel by  air has been proscribed, then it is reasonable to prevent their access to the purchase of firearms, with which they could cause more public harm. The aforementioned is a limited, cautiously contemplated limitation on individual rights. It may not stand-up to intelligent dialogue; but there should be a dialogue. Compared to the infringements proposed in some quarters that we prevent further immigration by Muslims, or curtail internet access for everyone, this proposal at least not a fear-based, bigoted reaction to outsiders. But, whatever our solutions will be, they must be approached with an attitude of calm and a method which respects due process. This collective breath is square one of an intelligent conversation. The next moves determine our freedoms for the near future. Lets avoid another Red Scare.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America. The Democratic Capacity for Repression. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. 1971.