Fear undercuts American ideals

September 15, 2011


Now, let’s mark the anniversary of something that happened after 9/11.

On 9/12, as a shaken nation reeled, an old soldier gave a pep talk. Do not let this change you, warned Secretary of State Colin Powell. Do not cower or walk around terrified. “We’re Americans,” he said. “We don’t walk around terrified.”

It was bracing medicine, designed to stiffen watery spines and lift downcast eyes. In that, it was like Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration address to a nation mired in economic ruin. “Let me assert my firm belief,” he said, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror ...”

Nine years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt gave in to a nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror of some of his own citizens and authorized the internment of Japanese-Americans whose only crime was being Japanese-Americans. It is a blot on our national honor that neatly sums up the contradictions in what he said 78 years ago and Powell echoed a decade back.

Yes, the physical bravery of Americans is incontestable, as proven on battlefields from Concord, Mass., to Peleliu Island in the South Pacific to the Meuse-Argonne region of France to Paktya Province in Afghanistan.

Similarly, Americans have always found courage to conquer the trials of national life, from Dust Bowl privation to presidential assassination to the bombing of children in church to the explosion of a spaceship arcing toward heaven.

But when it comes to finding courage to simply be Americans, to venerate the values upon which we were founded, the things we say we believe, we have too often been conspicuous by our cowardice, our spineless eagerness to throw sacred principle aside as a sop to expedience and fear. Or, as Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy said days before Roosevelt issued his order, “If it is a question of the safety of the country (and) the Constitution ... why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

In times of danger or fear, we seem to feel it OK to curtail the freedoms — of religion, association, speech — codified in that “scrap of paper.” We never seem to get that it is precisely in such times that those freedoms are most important and most in need of defense.

So everything that has happened since Powell spoke — the curtailment of civil liberties, the domestic surveillance, the demonizing of all things Muslim — is troubling, but predictable to any student of American history.

In his new book, “Manufacturing Hysteria,” author Jay Feldman traces the depressing line from a German-American being lynched during the First World War to the murders of Arabs after 9/11.

Along the way, union leaders, alleged communists, Mexicans, gays, peace activists and African-Americans all take their turns in the barrel, all get brutalized, detained, fired, illegally searched or killed outright because they, we are told, are the people we should fear. As a nation, we seem to need that, seem to need a people to fear. But fear interdicts intelligence.

It is almost impossible to reason and fear at the same time.

We ought to know this. Our history should have taught us. But we are, it seems, resistant to learning. And 10 years after 9/11 one thing now seems obvious.

Colin Powell was wrong.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


Liberty275 6 years, 3 months ago

I didn't realize I was walking around terrified. Thanks for letting me know Mr Pitts.

beebo 6 years, 3 months ago

Pitts: " In his new book, “Manufacturing Hysteria,” author Jay Feldman traces the depressing line from a German-American being lynched during the First World War to the murders of Arabs after 9/11."

I'm sorry. I just couldn't let this pass. WHAT murders of Arabs? Have I missed something in the news? Only murders on a grand scale (or any scale really) of Arabs has been perpetrated by fellow Arabs.....What exactly is he attempting to insinuate/incite?

voevoda 6 years, 3 months ago

beebo, Are you saying that because Arabs have killed other Arabs, it's okay for Americans of non-Arab descent to kill Americans of Arab descent? Yes, indeed, that has happened since 9/11/2001--not many times, but any such crimes are abhorrent. Sometimes the victims weren't Arab or weren't Muslim--they just "looked" Middle Eastern. And there have been lots of incidents short of murder. Just a few days ago, an American woman of Arab and Jewish descent was arrested on a plane. She hadn't done anything except sit in the same row as two Indian men, each of whom went to the restroom during the flight. That's the kind of hysteria that Pitts is warning against. Your reaction, and that of AppologiesMyLiege, demonstrate that his warning is timely.

beebo 6 years, 3 months ago

Not going to respond to incindiary disortions of my post.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 3 months ago

Does the current regime's new rat-out-your-neighbors effort count?

tbaker 6 years, 3 months ago

Pep talks or not, human nature is what it is and will continue to be. Pitts assumed a degree of enlightenment and evolution past our primal urges that simply isn't the case. Fill a person's heart with sheer terror and fear of death, and in one moment you'll have reduced them to the animal instinct we all have inside us. Polite society is merely a thin veneer laid over the savage that waits just behind the veil of manners and thoughful, considerate behavior. As the fear subsides, it is always replaced with blood lust and hatred for those who caused the fear. It is as predictable a human behavior characteristic as there is.

Abdu Omar 6 years, 3 months ago

Try being a Muslim today. Have you read the blogs that everyday say that "Muslims should go home to their own country" or that they should be rubbed off the face of the earth. This fear of Muslims is totally misguided because all, and I mean ALL, Muslims I know hate the terrorsts and what they did to the Islamic Faith. These terrorists are not part of mainstream Islam and never will be. Nowhere in Islamic Literature does it talk about 70 virgins if you blow yourself up or die killing others. Innocent slaughter is strickly forbidden and is considered the highest crime.

But Americans view Muslims as trying to subvert the Constitution they swore to uphold. They tried to stop the building of a Mosque and community building in Murfeesboro, Tennessee and the one a few blocks away from ground zero. Why? Do you think Muslims are happy with the terrorists achievement of destroying the twin towers? Do you think Muslims like to be compared with the terrorist who goes into a village where there are American Soldiers in Afghanistan and blow himself and them up? This is folley and must stop!

beatrice 6 years, 3 months ago

I believe we now fear the unknown more than ever.

Not the frightening unknown of what is lurking to harm us, but the unknown of the trivial. 9/11 brought us the scroll at the bottom of all news presentations. We now MUST read that Lady Gaga changed her hair color to ultra-marine at the very moment the talking heads are telling us that Paris Hilton was photographed snorting coke off a toilet seat in Vegas.

Osama bin Laden is to blame for the scroll -- may he rot in agitation.

Liberty275 6 years, 3 months ago

Most men would find 72 virgins agitating, so you might have your wish.

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