Surrendering to fear itself


Now we know.

I've always wondered about shameful moments in American history, such as the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. We imprisoned people without trials simply on the basis of who their ancestors were.

We betrayed not just basic principles of our law but the very core of the American Revolution, the bedrock belief that government cannot exercise arbitrary, unchecked authority. Why did we – we Americans who vow to defend freedom – do this?

Because we were scared. And that fear prompted us to deny what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

We're in a similar panic now, so frightened by the attacks in Paris that we once again are willing to suspend our commitments to both compassion and the rule of law by banning refugees from horror-plagued Syria.

That is why the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, says he would force all Muslims in the United States to carry special identification cards. Trump is either unaware or doesn't care that his proposal echoes the Nazis' approach to German Jews in the 1930s.

That is why the Republican governor from New Jersey (and presidential candidate) Chris Christie says he would ban even small children as refugees.

And that is why our governor, Mike Pence, turned away a family that had been waiting in Jordan for three years to come to the United States. They were supposed to seek sanctuary in Indiana, but, after Pence's refusal, instead found it in Connecticut.

That prompted Connecticut's governor, Democrat Dan Malloy, to deliver a stern rebuke. Malloy accused Pence of being intolerant and blind to moral responsibilities.

"This is the same guy who signed a homophobic bill in the spring surrounded by homophobes," Malloy said of Pence. "So I'm not surprised by anything the governor does."

Malloy's criticism was mild compared to that from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Cohen said the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum presents a Profile in Courage award on an annual basis. He suggested that there also ought to be a Profile in Cowardice award – and he nominated Pence as the first recipient.

"Pence is the Republican governor of Indiana," Cohen wrote. "He was born in Columbus, Indiana, on June 7, 1959, apparently without a spine."

Cohen correctly noted that the United States is scheduled to accept fewer than 200 Syrian refugees this year – most of them women and children and all of whom have been vetted and investigated for years.

Pence has responded to the criticism with another inarticulate national television appearance – this time on CNN – and a strange op-ed column in which he asserts that Indiana will continue to offer refuge to those people who really don't need refuge and help to those souls who really don't need help.

The Trumps, the Christies and the Pences love to speak pieties about freedom but their real measure is much more basic: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be so afraid that you stop thinking. And that is exactly what our enemies want.

We call ISIS a terrorist organization because its goal is to create terror – and, led by the Trumps, Christies and Pences, we are surrendering to terror. They want to make this a war between the Muslim and non-Muslim world – and, led by the Trumps, Christies and Pences, we are helping them divide the world along precisely that line.

Our fear just makes them stronger.

A man who became America's first Republican president once said that America cannot claim to be devoted to freedom if we are willing to honor our founding principles in some cases and ignore them when the going gets hard.

Such as when we're scared.

Abraham Lincoln said, "When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some other country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

It's always interesting to speculate on what our breaking points might be – what might lead us to surrender that which we love and profess to honor.

Now we know.


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