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Prejudice at Work

Updated on September 2, 2010

America at its worst

I used to have a hard time understanding how the United States government could lock up all those Japanese American citizens in internment camps during WW II, but I don’t wonder any longer – not after the latest wave of unleashed hatred and Muslim-bashing.

Whether it’s a cab driver slashed in NYC, or heavy equipment doused with accelerants in Murfreesboro, TN and set on fire, or all the ranting about a Muslim community center being planned in downtown Manhattan (in a building they own, by the way!) – the hysteria and frenzied venom aimed at Muslims in this country (who, like us, are U.S. citizens after all) has opened my eyes.

What our country did to Japanese Americans almost seventy years ago is beginning to pale, compared to what people are allowed to get away with lately. Where is our sense of decency as citizens? Whatever happened to leaders who stand on principle and speak out to defend human rights and dignity? How has it all gone so wrong?

Have we forgotten that the U.S. is a melting pot, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal with certain unalienable rights – namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Where once this country served as a refuge – “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as signaled by Lady Liberty with her torch in the NY harbor – now it’s looking and sounding a lot more like the kind of places people from eastern and western Europe fled to escape religious and political persecution.

We’ve seen this drama unfold before. I believe it was Elie Weisel who wrote that first the Nazis came for the sick and the deranged, and he said nothing. Then they came for homosexuals and immigrants and gypsies, but he said nothing. After that, they came for the Jews and next his neighbors, and still he said nothing. Then they came for him, he said, and there was no one left to speak.

Is that what we want this country to become, a place where only certain types of people can be called “real Americans,” where only some religious views are tolerated and only one particular brand of politics is considered legitimate, and history is re-written again and again to reflect one particular kind of bias? (as in, ‘slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War,’ and ‘the latest Bush administration isn’t thanked enough for invading Iraq’).

Perhaps a story told by an intern I once supervised can bring some clarity to all this. He said his college civics class was discussing the rise of Nazi Germany one day and a student asked, “Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why were they so passive, even while going to the gas chambers?” The professor said, “That’s a good question. Let’s think about it for a while, and we’ll discuss it later.

Halfway through their next class session the Dean of Students entered and announced, “Excuse me, but there’s been an emergency. I’ll have to ask you all to follow me.” She led the class members out into the hall and down the corridor. At the end of it she opened the door to a large storeroom and said, “Please step inside and wait here until I tell you it’s safe to come out,” and then closed the door. For a few seconds no one spoke, but then the professor announced in a calm voice, “We’ve all just been gassed.”

And that’s how it happens, how freedoms get chiseled or ripped away – by despotic persons who tell lies and present outrageous claims as ‘facts’ (the President’s not a real American), while the rest of the populace stays silent . . . until it’s too late.

But not this time. It’s time for ‘all good people to come to the aid of their country,’ to paraphrase an old exercise from typing class. Unless we speak up for what’s good and decent and honorable and insist that the United States and all its citizens once again claim those values as our true national heritage, George Santayana’s remark about the “dustbin of history” waiting to sweep us all away will become all too true.

Recall and act daily on what Elie Wiesel once said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

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