Could I have helped prevent the holocaust if I had been living in Germany in the 1930s?
This is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few days. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I’m afraid of what that might mean for my country and my fellow Americans.
Of course, we don’t have a Nazi party here in the United States, and antisemitism is mocked rather than promoted. We are nothing like the Germans who followed Hitler in the 1930s. We have nothing to worry about.
Except that we have isolated an entire group of our countrymen by their faith.
Today it is Muslims and not Jews who are blamed for our state of fear. We, like the Germans after World War I, are broke and angry and unsure of what our future holds. Our memories are scarred with images of burning bodies and crumbling buildings and we have no security blanket under which we can heal. We are angry. We are scared. We are wounded and looking for justice and solutions.
We are not so different from the average German in 1933.
Except today the finger is pointed at Muslims instead of Jews.
It is true that at the root of some of our fears are men who call themselves Muslims. It is true that we send troops to fight and die in countries where Islam is a dominant religion. It is true that some of our country’s most vocal critics are self-identified Muslims.
But it is also true that Islam is a religion that is practiced every day by Americans.
The words Muslim and terrorist are not interchangeable. People of all faiths blow things up and claim to be answering to God. People swearing allegiance to a myriad of principles have committed heinous acts against their fellowman. Christians. Atheists. Environmentalists. Patriots.
And you know this. We all know this. We hear these arguments and nod our heads and the liberals among us say “yes, yes, we must be tolerant of the Muslims.”
And we don’t even seem to notice that we are creating a divide in our country between us and them where we are Americans and they are Muslims.
We are Americans. We are united in our citizenship to a country founded by religious exiles, a people who cared less about what they could have or own or build and more about who they could be and how they could live. We are Christians and Buddhists and Muslims and Wiccans and Agnostics and tree-huggers and gun-toters and homeschoolers and factory workers and mailmen. We are Americans, all of us.
We seem to be forgetting when we say “Muslims” that we are referencing our countrymen. Or maybe we aren’t forgetting, but we are OK with asking these countrymen to be lesser citizens based on their religious choices. Do we blame them for aligning themselves with a religion used by terrorists? Do we forget that their choice was about God and faith and not based on extremist figures? Do we forget about the Christians who profess the same faith as Fred Phelps or Timothy McVeigh?
I suspect that we don’t even realize how much pain we are inflicting on our fellow Americans.
I suspect we forget that when we use “Muslim” when we mean “terrorist” that there are men and women who were born in this country who wince. Perhaps we forget that we are labeling children who play in our neighborhood parks and women who serve on our PTA boards and men who fight in our military.
I am afraid.
I am afraid for my friend who is not always treated as if she is welcome in her own country. I am afraid for her beautiful little girl who loves princesses. I am afraid for her husband who took up American citizenship willingly.
I am afraid that they are not being treated with the same dignity and respect that I am. I am heartbroken. I want them to be loved back by this country, by their country.
I want to help. I need to help. I cannot stand by and watch my fellow Americans be marginalized and dehumanized until it is all too easy to for them to be fenced in with barbed wire and armed guards. I need them to know that their Americanness is just as valid as mine, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is just as much their birthright as it is mine. I need to do something to ensure those promises are kept.
I am but one woman standing against a wave of prejudice and fear and propaganda. What can I, as one woman, do to prevent rampant racism from becoming state-sanctioned racism? What could I, had I been but one German, done to prevent the holocaust?
Alone, I can do very little. But I am not alone. Together, I believe, we can rally around our brothers and sisters in citizenship. Alone I can do almost nothing, but together, perhaps we can turn this ship around.
We are, after all, Americans.