It lurks deep in the temporal lobe of the brain’s cerebrum. It is almond-shaped and scientists call it the amygdala. It is where the emotions of fear and anger reside. A protective mechanism shared by all, it requires the right cue to spring into action. The terror attacks in Brussels and the saturated media coverage that followed were the trigger this time.
Like a clarion call, the attacks first summoned fear. Fear of injury, of death. Fear that our own family members may be endangered. Then this fear turned to anger when images of the victims and their grieving families flickered on TV and computer screens. The anger is understandable and righteous, and paybacks are called for. But the trouble occurs when this anger becomes unmoored and drifts to other targets— people who look like the assailants and who may share their language, dress, and religious beliefs, but not their violent politics.
Shots were fired at a mosque in Meriden, Connecticut. Two days later, in Pflugerville, Texas, vandals tore up a Quran, covered it with feces, and left it at the door of a mosque. In Roanoke, Virginia, Mayor David Bowers (D) announced his opposition to assisting Syrian refugees and suggested that it might be time to create World War II-style internment camps for any refugees from the Middle East. Tennessee state House member Glen Casada (R) followed suit by proposing that all Syrian refugees in his state be rounded up and sent to a federal immigration center. Rhode Island State Senator Elaine Morgan (R) argued against accepting any Syrian refugees because "[t]he Muslim religion and philosophy is to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone [who]is a non-Muslim." And so it began.
Now we have almost half of all governors, including one Democrat, pledging to block the resettlement of Syrian Muslim refugees in their states, and nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates siding with them. They fear terrorist infiltration, despite a vigorous U. S. vetting process that can take from 18 to 24 months.
This latest onslaught of Islamophobia was able to hit the ground running because the country’s temperament had been well prepared. With his incendiary rhetoric about Mexican rapists and building a 2,000 mile wall along the Mexican border, Donald Trump provided the tinder for a new spark of nativist thinking. Now he’s fanning the flames by suggesting we “strongly consider” closing mosques. Is he not familiar with the First Amendment? Ben Carson took a seat by the fire when he compared Syrian refugees to a rabid dog. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, joined in by suggesting that we give a religious test to refugees, though I’m afraid it would get reduced to the unconstitutional and un-American advisory: “Only Christians need apply.” Ah, but that little almond-shaped organ of fear and loathing is always very busy.
Why is it that when times are fraught with danger, some Americans are so quick to trash the values and symbols we hold so dear. It is great to trumpet the Statue of Liberty’s message of “Give me your tired, your poor…. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me….” in our textbooks, just don’t ask us to make good on the offer. It is uplifting to listen to the Sermon on the Mount’s beatitudes and the parable of the Good Samaritan, just don’t expect us to do as they suggest. It is instructive to cite the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and our turning away of a ship filled with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany as sad chapters in U.S. history, except we’ve apparently learned nothing.
And the worst of it is that we are playing right into the hands of the Islamic State. National Security expert Christopher Smith believes this behavior, “reinforces the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative that groups like ISIS use to make a political rapprochement between different religious groups impossible.” Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist groups, thinks the flow of refugees actually undermines the ISIS “message that its self-styled Caliphate is a refuge, because if it was, individuals would actually go there in droves,” rather than risk their lives making the journey to Europe.
But all of this takes serious reasoning. It is much easier to listen to that little voice in our head that whispers, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” That way, terror wins.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.