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Henningsen: Politics Of Fear

After 9/11 it was said that the worst of times brought out the best in people, but, sadly, sometimes they trigger our lowest instincts. If not, it would be hard to explain the sudden rise in fear-driven nativism that threatens to break up the European Union and undermine constitutional guarantees of civil rights and due process in the U. S.

It would be hard to explain calls from presidential candidates and many governors to restrict the entrance of Syrian refugees, despite an existing vetting process taking nearly two years to complete and requiring extensive background documentation that few people who escaped with only the clothes on their backs can provide, and despite growing evidence that the Paris massacres were largely the work of home-grown terrorists – Belgians and French – not refugees.

Those who play on fear by advocating measures like closing state borders to certain groups of people – something our Constitution doesn’t permit – manage to take political advantage of the moment without ever having to deliver on their promises.
This is both shameless and shameful. But, sadly, they have history on their side.

We prefer to forget America’s long tradition of mean-spiritedness driven by fear: The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; anti-Irish and anti-Catholic laws; Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus; Jim Crow laws denying civil rights to African-Americans; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the National Origins Act of 1924, setting racial and ethnic quotas on immigration; Japanese-American internment; the Red Scare; the Patriot Act.

When we recall things like Japanese-American internment, we regret our ungenerous behavior and regard it as a momentary lapse.
But I’m not so sure. That string of events dating back to the 1790’s demonstrates the underside of American character - the part we don’t want to acknowledge - that drives our behavior more often than we think.

We may be a nation founded on a set of universal values, but from the outset we tacitly admitted they weren’t so universal after all, not applying, for example, to women or to people of color.

Today, as Americans once again face the challenge of living up to our supposedly most cherished ideals, we can only hope that, this time, we’ll get it right.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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