Op-Ed Columnist - Americas History of Fear - made possible because many middle-of-the road were ambivalent/silent
A radio interviewer asked me the other day if I thought bigotry was the only reason why someone might oppose the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. No, I don’t. Most of the opponents aren’t bigots but well-meaning worriers — and during earlier waves of intolerance in American history, it was just the same.
Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque. The starting point isn’t hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.
Followers of these movements against Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants were mostly decent, well-meaning people trying to protect their country. But they were manipulated by demagogues playing upon their fears — the 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of Glenn Beck.
Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics, Mormons or others. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.
Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days. But we should also recognize that historically this distrust has led us to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.