Fear Itself

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Uptown Theater, waiting for a showing of Spectre, when a friend told me of the Paris terrorist attacks. I grabbed my phone and got as much information as I could before the movie started. Afterwards my wife and I listened to the news on the way home. As much as I enjoyed the Bond film, it almost felt naïve and quaint. If only a suave British agent could protect the world from danger. Reality harbors no such illusions.

The discourse following the attacks brought to mind two other films I had seen recently. Both were set firmly in the Cold War but have added resonance now. In Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer who defends a Russian spy. Even though many wanted the spy executed, Donovan mounts a vigorous defense and gets him a life sentence instead. Later Donovan negotiates the spy’s exchange for a captured American reconnaissance pilot. Trumbo shows how the famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (beautifully played by Bryan Cranston), and many others in Hollywood fell victim to the notorious “blacklist.” In the wake of pressure from Washington, Hollywood refused to employ anyone who was, or was suspected to be, a Communist. Many other professions followed suit.

Clearly the Soviet Union and its allies presented a very real threat to America. As Bridge of Spies illustrated, indeed there were Soviet spies working to undermine the United States and put American lives at risk. However, as both that film and Trumbo remind us, legitimate concerns can easily mushroom into panic and paranoia. Instead of keeping the focus on those for whom actionable intelligence or hard evidence showed a danger, many Americans assumed anyone in a larger group was a possible enemy. As the Soviets were Communist, therefore anyone who was, or had been, a member of the Communist party had to be a Soviet sympathizer, a foreign agent, or someone else determined to undermine the American way of life. Many innocent Americans lost their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives, simply because of their political beliefs. The real threat from the Soviets got lost.

The parallels to our times are far too striking. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and those who ally with them are a very dangerous threat. The Paris attacks are only the most recent example. We all remember 9/11, the Ford Hood massacre, and the May 2015 shootings in Garland, Texas. For all of those, there are many more possible attacks stopped by strong intelligence and law enforcement.

Unfortunately, we have already seen how genuine concerns about legitimate dangers are giving way to sweeping generalizations. Just as, during the Cold War times, many viewed anyone connected to a form of communism as the enemy, now the same can be said about Muslims. In a recent poll, 56 percent of Americans agreed that “The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.” Presidential candidates have suggested that Muslims be registered in a national database. Others have suggested that Syrian refugees who are Christian be allowed into America, while we block the Muslim refugees. Still others have suggested shutting down mosques. In northern Virginia, not too far from where I used to live, a community meeting addressing an Islamic Center’s plans to expand was interrupted by protesters calling the Muslim residents terrorists.

Trumbo depicts how Dalton Trumbo and his friends originally believed that they would be protected under the First Amendment. They should have been right. The amendment safeguards freedom of speech and assembly, or at least it is supposed to do that. Some Hollywood notables, including Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, and Lauren Bacall, formed the “Committee for the First Amendment” to protest how the government was targeting people simply for their political beliefs. In the end the First Amendment did not matter, as the House Un-American Activities Committee had Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten jailed. The “Red Scare” overwhelmed any protest or dissent.

Looking back at that era, it becomes clear that America faced a danger just as insidious as Communism. Our nation’s basic freedoms eroded, not due to a foreign power, but rather our own fear and mistrust of our fellow Americans. It is all too easy to celebrate freedom when it is not tested. We do not truly know whether that freedom means something until it becomes difficult. The America of the late 40s and 50s faced such a test. For the most part, it failed. Ironically, in doing so the nation brought itself closer to the Soviet Union, where any form of dissent was stamped out. Our nation forgot that the First Amendment means protecting all forms of speech, not just those we agree with.

Now our freedoms are tested again. At issue is another part of the First Amendment, the freedom of religion. It is so easy to see what happened in Paris, and what is going on in the rest of the world, and succumb to fear of all things Muslim. Yes, there are Muslims who are terrorists, just like there were Communists who spied for the Soviets. But to judge an entire group of people for the actions of a small number in that group is not only unfair, but also wildly inaccurate. President Bush famously said after 9/11 that “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends... Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

What happens if we give into the fear? We make the struggle against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and those who support them into a fight against an entire religion. Not only is doing that giving the terrorists exactly what they want, but it strikes against our core values. America was founded on religious tolerance and acceptance. Our country has long been a home for those who wished to practice their religion freely, away from persecution. If we lose that, what exactly are we fighting for? ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, just as the Soviet Union did, stamp out any dissent or departure from a singular point of view. Attacking an entire religion brings us closer in thinking to our enemies. We can do better and we must do better. Our struggle against the terrorists should be a fight to protect the basic American freedoms we all cherish. As Hanks/Donovan says in Bridge of Spies, “Let’s show our enemies who we are.”

Adam Spector
December 1, 2015

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