The history of intolerance in Western Civilization runs long and deep, but I’ve mostly been thinking about what we might call US history. Even well before we became a country, my own New England ancestors were pretty intolerant of the religions of others; Quakers, non-reformed Anglicans (Episcopalians), Catholics, etc. Of course, people of color (any color) didn’t really count as people, although they were okay to use as servants or slaves.
By the time we get to the time of the American Revolution, the various colonies, several of which were founded to support specific religious factions (all Christian, but not necessarily liking each other very much) were virtually required to adopt the notion of Freedom of Religion in the country they were forming because it would have been impossible to establish any sort of agreement which could have led to the common European practice of having a state religion. Of course, the indigenous people didn’t count (not being white, European or Christian), nor did colored (who were basically fit only to be slaves, at least in many parts of the new country).
I won’t go into all of the details possible, but the US did go through a long series of waves of immigrants from a lot of different countries, representing most of the major regions and religions of the world, many varieties of ethnicity and a pretty wide range of skin colors. These folks were dominantly European, at least at first, but more recently they have come from many other parts of the world. It is not too much to say that virtually every one of these groups has been the target of at least some form of discrimination and intolerance.
Of course, this has enriched the language with a wide variety of terms to refer to these groups, most of which were, at least originally, intended to point out their inferior status and unworthiness to be “real” citizens. These were, at least in some cases, largely invented and promoted by the last group to be discriminated against. While this may have made “American English” a bit more colorful, I’m unconvinced that it has made us a better country.
Now, I’ve studied only the most basic levels of psychology, but I do believe that a certain amount of this is, in fact, understandable and, probably, at least somewhat forgivable. I believe that I am correct in suggesting that it has been pretty well established that all animals (humans are animals, after all) are uneasy in the presence of “others” who are different from themselves. There’s nothing new about that, it’s even a significant theme in Othello, so it’s far from a new, or profound observation. I remember reading about animal studies where a well-integrated member of a group of monkeys was removed for a time, his hair color was changed and he was reintroduced to the original group only to be killed almost immediately. Apparently, difference was not just viewed as undesirable, but as threatening. On the other hand, we have defined the notion of being “civilized” as including the idea that we at least try to suppress these sorts of behaviors as not suitable for human beings. We haven’t always been completely successful in these efforts, but we, civilized people, at least claim to try to recognize the desirability of suppressing this sort of behavior.
In the present day, of course, we have the threat of terrorists who claim to be followers of Islam, many of whom come from foreign lands and non-majority ethnicities (at least in the US). NOTE: I say claim to be followers of Islam because what I studied about Islam in that Comparative Religion class I took a long time ago, as well as what I have read and been told by folks who seem to know what they are talking about, suggests that one really has to work fairly hard to stretch the basic tenets of Islam into justifying the sorts of terrorist actions which have become all too common in recent years.
About as hard, for example, as one would have to stretch the principles of Christianity to justify those actions we call the Crusades (which seem to have had more to do with trade routes than about religion, at least to some scholars) or to send Nazi soldiers off to war with the phrase “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) on their belt buckles (and it’s worth noting that the Nazis were simply continuing a common practice for German soldiers since Germany became unified about 1870). In fact, many countries have found it helpful to the “cause” to find ways of suggesting that whatever war they are currently engaging in is on the side of the dominant deity of their country.
Now I have no interest in apologizing for any terrorists! I don’t care what your cause, I find the idea of engaging in terrorist activities unacceptable for anyone who wishes to be thought of as civilized. I suppose I should try to define “terrorism” for purposes of clarity. According to Wikipedia: “In November 2004, a Secretary-General of the United Nations report described terrorism as any act ‘intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.’” For me, that about covers it.
I find it unfortunate that the recent terrorism in Paris is being used by some of our so-called “political leaders,” or at least “wannabes,” as an excuse to tarnish all followers of Islam and to justify what in some cases are really acts of terrorism, although they are more often referred to more politely as “hate crimes.” Just recently, here in Omaha, we had some idiot decide that vandalizing the local Islamic Center by spray painting it with the Parisian variation of the “Peace” symbol (☮).
I confess that I have become fond of the idea of placing a silhouette of the Eiffel tower inside a circle as a symbol of the rejection of the recent terrorism in Paris, but I’ve always been a little uncomfortable at the generalization of what started as an anti-nuke symbol into a generalized symbol for peace, and the “☮” symbol was created for the British anti-nuke movement.
Of course, spray paint on a building isn’t quite as stupid as suggesting that the people of Paris got what they deserved since they live in a country with strict gun laws or suggesting (even ordering) state employees to cease any efforts to provide sanctuary to anyone fleeing the terror in the Middle East because it might not be possible to be 100% sure that none of these people could possibly have terrorist leanings. It’s also a fact that there was fairly strong popular sentiment for keeping Jewish refugees out of the US shortly before WWII because the Nazis might try to smuggle in their sympathizers with them, so this isn’t a completely new idea in politics.
On the other hand, I do wonder if everyone has forgotten about the bombing in Oklahoma City. It would seem that we can grow our own terrorists pretty well, and we have done so. It strikes me as a pretty cheap shot to suggest that “terrorism” is the exclusive property of those “Islamics,” and that theirs is, or has been, the only meaningful form of terrorism in the world. And, we shouldn’t forget that keeping Syrian refugees out of our country does not seem well justified when one considers that the Parisian terrorists were French and Belgian, not Syrian. Of course, Syrians are more easily identifiable as “different,” so they are easy to isolate as “different” and, therefore, “dangerous.” It seems unlikely, however, that this would do much to eliminate terrorism.
One doesn’t have to look back very far in history to see the terrorism tactic being used by Mao in China, both the IRA and the loyalist militias in Ireland, various groups in Vietnam during that conflict, etc., etc., etc. No, terrorism has been around a long time and it’s not about to go away. The sooner we accept the fact that we have contributed to the creation of a world which not only is NOT completely safe, but, in fact, is highly unlikely to ever BE completely safe, the sooner we are likely to approach this problem in a way which MIGHT allow us to get terrorism under better control. I’m afraid, however, that the terrorism cat is out of the bag and it’s not going back in.
The idea that we can ever believe in the idea of complete security from terror is at least as illusive as being completely free from a nuclear threat. We’ve come a long way towards reducing the threat of some idiot with his finger on the button, but it’s still there. It would be nice to make some progress towards the same level of control of idiots with suicide vests and AK-47s. I’m sorry to say that I’m not convinced that that’s going to be accomplished through intolerance, bigotry and prejudice, but that seems to be about as much as many of our wannabe political leaders have been able to come up with.
Maybe we need to start asking more hard questions of those who wish to be our leaders, and requiring them to come up with real answers, not just demagoguery about it all being the fault of “those other folks,” so the answer is to make like an ostrich and just stick our head in the ground. The world ain’t going to change just because it would be nice if it did. We are going have to deal with poverty, crime, lack of opportunity, the unfair division of resources and a number of other problems which provide the root causes of terrorism. Bigotry, racism, intolerance and prejudice do not seem likely to help much.