In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese/Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps euphemistically called "relocation centers" with names like Manzanar, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake. Pleasant enough sounding names; but they articulate a grotesque chapter in American history. Close to a hundred thousand American citizens were imprisoned in these camps just because they happened to be of Japanese descent or bloodline. Some were detained for years simply for being married to a Japanese/American, or for having a relative who was. Their property was taken from them, they were forced to abandon their homes and sometimes their families, and they were packed into makeshift prisons under unimaginably cruel conditions. They were punished for being part Japanese, not because they had committed a crime. Agents of our federal government treated them as if they were the ones who had flown the planes into the sky above the Arizona early on a Sunday morning in Hawaii and rained bombs and bullets down on our sleeping service members below.
When action is a reflexive response to fear or suspicion, the results seldom lead to anything glorious. We as a people allowed our government - the government of a beloved, democratic, socially progressive president - to send Americans who hadn't done anything wrong to prison without trials, without basic habeus corpus rights, without legal recourse to protest their incarceration, which is a fundamental constitutional right for any person accused of a crime on American soil, not just for Americans. We did this reprehensible thing to our own fellow citizens. Now, nine years after the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania became charred memorials, we're showing disturbing signs of repeating our own odious history, oblivious to the lessons of our stained and bloody past. An entire religion is being demonized because of the actions of a microscopic few, and Muslims in America are feeling the very real and very dangerous heat. Perhaps that's because they're more attentive students of our own history than we are.
I don't believe 27-year-old FDNY firefighter Mike Brennan of Ladder 4, Division 3, Battalion 9, whom I knew briefly before he was killed in the Towers, or the son of my friend June Wagner, Marine Sargeant Bobby Wagner, who was killed in action on August 1, 2004 while serving as a civilian contractor in Iraq, died so that we could do to Muslims in America today what we did to Japanese/Americans during World War II. I don't speak for either of those brave young men, but I choose to believe their sacrifice requires a vigilant effort NOT to repeat the terrible mistakes we made almost seventy years ago. If Mike or Bobby died "for" anything other than the impulse to help one's fellow human being in times of crisis or to serve one's country when called, I believe it was to uphold the idea that Americans welcome the expression of religious freedom by all celebrants, and we don't close ranks against an entire religion just because a few psychotic extremists with narcissistic delusions of grandiose martyrdom did something really bad while claiming to represent all of Islam. Those hijackers no more represent Islam than the so-called reverend Terry Jones does Christianity, or Snooki and The Situation do Italian/Americans. Assigning a small group of twisted, murdering fanatics such elevated status within a religion that abhors and repudiates what they did, and continuing to use that false depiction as a means of mining anti-Islam anger nine years after the original crime, is indicative of the level of fear towards Muslims on which so many of our attitudes and policies have been based since 9/11.
This country was founded by people who gave up much of what they held dear to escape the intense suffering caused by religious persecution. We fought a revolution against oppressors an ocean away, and a civil war against the worst and most inhumane among ourselves, to uphold the right to be unenslaved by any person or political conceit, to worship as we choose, and to be happy as long as we obey the law. America used to be the place other people always set their sights on as a beacon of something better. They wanted to work hard and prosper, to live freely and happily, to pursue and achieve the American dream. In the neighborhood where I was born and raised on the upper east side of Manhattan, Muslims own businesses and patronize the stores and live in the apartment buildings and send their children to school with Jewish, Protestant, Shinto, and Roman Catholic classmates. They get coffee at P.J. Bernstein's and stop after work at P.J. Clarke's. I sincerely doubt that any of them is plotting to impose Sharia law on the rest of us. They certainly wouldn't want to try it on my block... If you think about it rationally, it makes more sense to believe they're here to escape that kind of restrictive dogma, not to expand it. Isn't that why immigrants have always come here? To make a life for themselves and their children that's better, freer, than the one they left behind?
We are turning our backs on our own history, our own reason for existing, when we say "Move the Mosque" or "Burn the Koran." If Mike Brennan and Bobby Wagner died for a reason that makes any sense at all, I don't want to believe it was to foment hatred towards practitioners of a particular religion or to encourage desecration of any religion's holy books. If they died defending "freedom," then I don't think either of them would want me to be held hostage by hatred and hostility towards Muslims, or anyone else, for another seventy years.