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Our Way of Life Is at Risk. Again. (And Again. And Again)

08/24/2010 08:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've never told this story. I don't mean publicly, I mean "never." Not to anyone. I just figured it was something for the moment, and that the moment would pass. Unfortunately, it's now clear, that the moment didn't pass.

Immediately after 9/11, there was a growing hate by some in America towards all Muslims. Never mind that they were Americans, too, never mind that they were as angered at the carnage, never mind that they also may have lost love ones. If you practiced the Muslim faith, if you simply wore a burka, if you even "looked" Middle Eastern, it was a frightening and dangerous time in America because your personal religion was the same as some radical terrorists.

Yet America has always been a nation that supports those in need. On the Statue of Liberty, Americans burst with pride at the words, "Give me your tired, your poor." Send your homeless to us, it sings. Send them. It's who we are.

That's why a few days later I found a mosque and asked would they mind if I sat in on one of their services. Americans living by their constitutional right of religious freedom - why America was founded - should know that there were non-Muslims who didn't hate them for merely having a different faith.

There was time to return home and change clothes since I was in shorts, inappropriate for a religious service. No, no, no, she insisted, you can come like that. I got the sense she didn't want me to leave, unsure if I'd come back.

The service was a memorial for someone who had died on 9/11. The words weren't in my language, yet it was painfully clear that everyone in that room was distraught that radical zealots had attacked the U.S., had killed 3,000 people and that one of their own had died. Distraught even more, I suspect, because these zealots had shamed the name of their own faith. As the service ended, cake and juice were passed around the seats - to me, as well. And when people mingled afterwards to mourn, I was included, too. All day, though they were under attack by others, I was warmly embraced.

I tell this story for only one reason - because I shouldn't have to. Nine years later, hatred towards anything connected to the Muslim faith - including Americans - is a shameful stain on what America is about.

Most Americans will tell you they believe in freedom of speech, that it's the heart of how they view being American. Freedom of religion, too. But it can be a tricky thing: saying what you believe and acting that way are two different things.

Backing things you agree with, after all, that's easy. Defending people's right to say what makes your skin crawl, however, that's when you show whether you actually support freedom of speech. Accepting someone's right to follow their personal faith no matter how gallingly wrong you think it is, that's freedom of religion. Anything less is not freedom.

Anything less is intolerance. Anything less is going against the core American tenets of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. You must allow others their constitutional right, no matter how much it aggrieves you. Must. There's no wiggle room.

Putting a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero is understandably painful to many. Yet to many others, it's an important sign of the very freedom and greatness that America stands for, which has always been our most powerful beacon to the world.

Nonetheless, all that is secondary. You see, since this controversy is over something that is not a mosque, that can't be seen from Ground Zero, that has another center already there, it goes to demonstrate that this is all and only about intolerance, fear, hatred and bigotry. Not "sensitivity."

Make no mistake, this hatred towards Muslims is nothing new. It is a cycle that goes on and on by the small-minded. There have long been vocal minorities of the United States who gain strength by demonizing those who are different, who they fear.

Black people were less-than human and enslaved. And lynched.

Japanese-Americans couldn't be trusted and were put in internment camps.

Hispanics might be illegal and should be deported.

Muslims are terrorists and must be banned.

On and on it goes. By the small segment of the intolerant, the fearful, the hate-filled, the bigots.

(And amidst this hatred of others who are different and can't be trusted, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, Joseph Stack flew a plane into the Austin IRS, and James von Brunn shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Yet not one of them was Black, Japanese-American, Hispanic or Muslim.)

Of course, time was when Irish immigrants were disdained. And Italians off the boat, too. And Puerto Ricans, Jews, Poles and Chinese. Their ancestors all remember. Drunks, gangsters, dirty, greedy, stupid, Yellow Peril immigrants. Who couldn't be trusted. Who each threatened Our Way of Life.

What is most notable is that this unrelenting, intolerant hatred of others who are different is not only so profoundly against the core of America, but so deeply against the best of the nation's interests.

In his famous biography, Theodore Rex, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris quotes a letter that President Theodore Roosevelt wrote over 100 years ago, in 1905, after Japan had defeated Russia in an expansionist war in the Far East. Roosevelt was concerned about protecting U.S. defenses in Hawaii.

"If we show that we regard the Japanese as an inferior and alien race," Roosevelt wrote, "and try to treat them as we have treated the Chinese, and if at the same time we fail to keep our navy at the highest point of efficiency and size - then we shall invite disaster."

And so, unheeded, that disaster happened. Because 36 years later, Japan attacked the exact defensive location Roosevelt warned of: Pearl Harbor.

The history and danger of intolerance goes deeper. Author Morris writes that what prompted Roosevelt's 1905 letter was "anger and embarrassment over an upsurge of anti-Japanese prejudice in California. Members of the state legislature had officially declared all immigrants from Japan to be 'immoral, intemperate, [and] quarrelsome.'"

And 37 later, in perhaps America's greatest shame, nearly 120,000 Japanese-American citizens out of fear and ignorant hatred were imprisoned in internment camps.

Be very clear: this empty outage against Muslim Americans is not about Americans who believe in the Muslim faith. It is about the people with their empty outrage. Because they are the people who are intolerant, or fearful, or hate-filled or bigots who always show up throughout history and weaken America by their small-minded actions. Time and time and time again.

This manufactured controversy is not about whether a community center or mosque or anything is built anywhere in America, or if it's insensitive or should be located elsewhere, because such outraged people are never satisfied until their own intolerance, fear, hate or bigotry is satisfied. But such things are rarely satisfied, because they feed on themselves.

That's what this is about. Them. The small people. But America is bigger than that. That's why America, in the end, has always supported, embraced, protected and sat with those very people who need it.

When we accept differences, no matter how awkward or even painful they may seem, not only does that always, in the end, help us, but -

That is who America is.