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Suspect Thy Neighbor

by Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as tolerant. Even the most bigoted people consider themselves fair-minded, claiming that their contempt for members of the hated group is objective, based on “their poor morals and values” or “their bad behavior”.

In the past, most Americans had no trouble seeing through these justifications. But bigotry got a booster shot when 9/11 ushered in a new era of color-coded anxiety, paranoia, and distrust. Little by little, we’ve become convinced that there’s only one way to stay safe: “Suspect thy neighbor.”

All over the US, even here in the delightfully diverse Boston area, we’re warned to be wary of those who are different. Every day on the bus I hear the same eerie recording, “Be on the lookout for unattended bags and for any suspicious behavior”. But have repetitive warnings at the airport, on the bus, and in the train station really made us any safer? Can suspiciously monitoring our fellow travelers really stop a determined terrorist, or will it just make untrusting, unfriendly, and unhappy?

What kind of person with “suspicious behavior” are we supposed to be on the lookout for, anyway? Is it the Latino who speaks no English, or the Muslim girl wearing a headscarf? Is it the guy with the large army bag, or the youth wearing a t-shirt that says, “Make Love Not War”? Suspiciousness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

What History Tells Us

History tells us that public fears of a particular political, religious or ethnic group leads to hostility, vigilantism and persecution, not safety. While the end results have often been tragic on a massive scale, we must remember that intolerance grows an inch at a time. And it begins with distrust towards our neighbors.

In late 2003 I was in Nashville, “Friendliest City” when I saw a man getting into a car with a battered trunk and a shattered rear window. I asked if this had just happened. No, he replied, it occurred in his driveway, the night his antiwar bumper sticker was torn off. He said he would drive his car un-repaired, as a warning that intolerance was on the rise.

I often wondered if anyone got the message, or if his upholstery just got moldy.

Indeed, intolerance and paranoia are becoming more overt-and is it any wonder? For four years now, political leaders have warned us not to trust or accept members of certain immigrant and religious groups. Televangelists preach that tolerance isn’t a virtue, but a sin. Such words are music to already bigoted ears.

Many people, uniformed and civilian alike, have responded to the Bush administration’s enemy-focused rhetoric in predictable and ominous ways: harassing minorities; threatening or arresting protestors; setting up “free speech zones”; venting anger at foreign policies onto individual soldiers; and using force to silence and intimidate those who publicly disagree on politically charged issues.

Racial profiling, demonizing minorities and imprisonment without due process have eroded American traditions such as defending personal liberties, insisting on fairness, and presuming people “innocent until proven guilty”. Democratic virtues must constantly be reinforced by influential leaders, for they’re easily replaced by prejudice and passion. That’s why Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent scare-tactic speech is so worrisome:

“The governor’s comments came last Wednesday, when he was addressing the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C. “How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions [universities] who’ve come from terrorist-sponsored states? Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them? How about people in settings, mosques for instance, that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror? Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on?” he said.” “Romney Offends Local Muslims”, Cambridge Chronicle, 9/22/05

“Looking out for the other guy”, the rule that Jimmy Stewart urged his fellow senators to follow in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has degenerated into “watching the other guy”. Many Americans-including, unfortunately, those with severe paranoia, violent tendencies and criminal records-will get the message that their leaders condone the “tracking”, wiretapping, and even the imprisonment (PC term is “detainment”) of people who’ve committed no crime, but practice certain religions, wear certain clothes, or publicly oppose certain policies.

If that’s not a recipe for hate and terror, I don’t know what is. These emotions, when promoted by leaders and adopted by the masses, make possible the gradual restriction of individual liberties against certain ethnic, religious or political groups without significant public protest. And that is the slippery slope down which the radical GOP right is pushing America. Naysayers protest that fascism doesn’t “look” like this-but they are splitting hairs, looking for identical outward signs of encroaching fascism while ignoring genuine underlying similarities.

As Robert O. Paxton notes, “We are not required to believe that fascist movements can only come to power in an exact replay of the scenario of Mussolini and Hitler. All that is required to fit our model is polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites.” The Anatomy of Fascism (2004)

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles that Will Transform Your Family, (2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, “Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One”. Visit her website.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005

 

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