Something remarkable happened on November 4, 2008. Despite economic distress, uncertainty and insecurity, voters went to the polls and chose hope over fear electing Barack Obama President of the United States.
I say remarkable because in all my doctoral and post-doctoral work studying societies under stress, the more typical response under such circumstances has been for social movements to emerge that, driven by fear, withdraw into chauvinistic xenophobia, glorifying an imagined past and striking out against threats real or imagined. It is rare that a society having endured a brutal attack against its homeland, living with two unresolved wars, reeling from a loss of confidence in its basic institutions and declining prosperity would listen to the angels of its better self. And yet, that is what we did. That was then.
Now, fear is back and is wrecking havoc.
Over the past year and one half, this emergent fear has taken many forms as opposition political leaders struck out on multiple fronts: questioning the President's religion, his origins and citizenship; accusing him of promoting "socialism" and Marxism; arguing that the health care reform effort would condemn senior citizens to an early death; striking out against "illegals" and pushing to deny citizenship to their babies; and now hysteria over Muslims and mosques.
Seen in this context, the hysteria about the Muslim community center being planned near Ground Zero is not just a protest against a building and a place. It is rather the latest chapter in this evolving campaign that exploits fear by preying on uncertainty and insecurity.
It is not about this mosque in that place. Right wing politicians across the country have made political hay objecting to mosques in other communities. And even in remote congressional districts where there are no mosques, Republican candidates are challenging their opponents to declare where they stand on building the mosque in far away Manhattan.
As the hysteria has grown, the rhetoric has accelerated, not only unchecked but egged on by leaders who vow to make the matter of the mosque a national campaign issue in November. And in the process the language has been transformed into sheer bigotry against Islam itself.
I remember in the frightening days after 9/11 how, after a month of horrifying backlash, the President, both houses of Congress and both political parties spoke in one voice denouncing bigotry and intolerance, reminding Americans that the measure of our patriotism was how we would affirm tolerance and respect for the rights of all. We were reminded then that "Islam was not the enemy. It was terrorists who had abused their faith who were the guilty ones." We were urged to be careful. And many paid attention and were careful.
But listening now to the hateful speech of some Republican political leaders, it has become clear that they have thrown caution, right reason, and decency to the wind. They have presented the very building of a mosque as a symbol of the victory of extremism over our values, while portraying Islam as a hateful ideology. And they have been given free air time on major networks, unchecked and uncontested. They are threatening the very fabric of our national unity. They are exploiting and fueling the fear of a distressed minority of white middle class Americans, alienating and creating enormous insecurity among Muslim Americans and profoundly tarnishing the image of America in the rest of the world (the consequences of this hysterical anti-Muslim campaign are worse than Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo combined).
Fear is back, with a vengeance. It rules the street and we have every right to be concerned. What is needed now are strong voices speaking again to our better selves. Voices that will speak directly to the Gingrichs, Palins, Cornyns, Becks, and Kings and say "Shame. Your bigoted appeals to fear and intolerance disgrace us all and put our country at risk in the world. In the name of all that is good, stop before it is too late."