In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a rumor swept through Ventura, on the California coast, that the Japanese were lurking in submarines just off the shoreline. As my mother Joan, who was just a girl at the time, recalls, "The stories spread from mouth to mouth. People said, 'We can't see them, but they can see us through their periscopes.' It was really scary, feeling like we were being watched by these strangers. Who were they? We'd never even heard of Japan until then."
This was paranoia, to be sure, but it was not crazy paranoia. We were at war with Japan, a country that had already launched one highly successful attack against us. Why not a surprise invasion by submarine? The reaction to those fears, however, could not have been more irrational. Branding them "Japs," we herded loyal American citizens into concentration camps, just because they were of Japanese ancestry. Some of them had sons in the U.S. armed forces, fighting the very enemy we mistook them for.
Joan remembers that Japanese-American kids in her class just disappeared. No one in her school said anything about it. One brave man, however, refused to submit to internment. Fred Korematsu challenged the order in the courts and, with the help of the ACLU, pursued his case all the way to the Supreme Court. It turned him down on the grounds that national security was at stake. In dissent, Justice Roberts noted that that was nothing more than
convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. ... I need hardly labor the conclusion that Constitutional rights have been violated.
This was America at its worst. But at least, we thought, this was the America of the past.
Six decades later, on the morning of 9/11, I called my mother to make sure she was all right. As the Twin Towers fell, we watched in awe and horror and talked for at least an hour. I remember remarking to her, "This must be what Pearl Harbor was like." I had no idea how right I was.
The 9/11 surprise attack, though nearly a decade old, instilled a deep and abiding fear in us. We feel that "they" -- our jihadi enemies -- are lurking out there. It is not an unreasonable fear. Yet the reaction of the last few weeks is completely crazy. In our hysteria, we are mistaking loyal Muslim Americans and at least a billion peaceful Muslims overseas for a few thousand ruthless thugs who constitute the fascist wing of Islam.
Human nature doesn't change. Nor do the tactics of cynical sociopaths who prey on people's fears for power and profit. We were stampeded into war with Iraq on the totally false pretext that it was harboring both al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. More Americans died there than in the 9/11 attacks. Now politicians and Fox News pundits are whipping up hysteria over a so-called mosque at Ground Zero (which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero). Here is Public Cynic No. 1, a man who went to his dying wife's bedside to announce that he was divorcing her for another woman, the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:
I am no apologist for Islam. It suffers from many of the same faults as fundamentalist Christianity: laws grounded in rough tribal justice, a fatalism about God's will, a hostility to science, and a drive to convert others, to name a few. But at least it is a moral system. At least it demands of its followers that they practice compassion and restraint. Gingrich, Fox News, and their fear-mongering mob have demonstrated no moral commitments at all.
At the very moment our young men and women are trying to win a war that Gingrich, Fox and friends bayed for, this campaign of hysteria threatens to make all of Islam the enemy, rather than the merciless Taliban and al Qaeda thugs. (If you haven't already, you really should read Frank Rich's column on how they've betrayed Gen. Petraeus.)
Gone is the "War on Terror." Now it's all about stopping the "Islamization of America." Huh? To listen to these guys, you'd think that we're all about to roll out our prayer rugs and bow to Mecca:
We can still stop the Hannity insanity. First, change the channel. Better yet, take a walk. Listen to the birds. Pause and think about what we're doing. If we let a few cynics scare us into declaring war on Islam, we will have handed al Qaeda exactly what they aimed at on 9/11. In their madness, they believe Allah will lead them to victory in a global jihad.
This is religion at its worst. It's up to us to be sane. May we find the courage to cherish the constitution that makes us great.