Friday, October 22, 2010

Never Forget: Sad State of Freedom in America (Repost from Sept. 2010)

September Eleventh is a day that Americans mark with reverence. It is not a holiday nor religious observance; it's not a day that is celebrated, but on this Saturday the eleventh of September we mark the ninth university of the 2001 terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people and forever changed this country and the world. This year, as every year since and assuredly every year following, we pay tribute to those who lost their lives in rural Pennsylvania, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the World Trade Center, since known as Ground Zero, in lower Manhattan; as well as salute those who died in the efforts of saving the lives of others - the firefighters, the police, the EMT's, and rescue workers whose bravery and selfless heroism on that horrific day will be remembered forever. Time has past and will continue to pass, but we have not forgotten and we will never forget. Those lost will be remembered. Their sacrifice shall be honored.

In New York, Ground Zero has become to many a sort of sacred place. The scene of terror and devastation nine years ago today now sits representing not just a terrible reminder of that tragedy and the final resting place of so many who were taken from us, but it also represents a promise for a more peaceful, more hopeful future. The towers that once stood there may not be replaced, most likely could never be replaced, but as before and so too now, America will rebuild, stronger, better than ever before. This is the optimism that makes America great. The belief that tomorrow's dawn will be brighter. That a new day means a new beginning. Our country, through all of its trials and tribulations, through all its misdirections and redresses, has been and will continue to be the beacon of hope and liberty throughout the world.

Sadly, though there has always been some in this great nation who choose to focus on the negative and rally behind cynicism and divisiveness rather than compassion and commonality. Now is no different. Since the attacks in 2001, there has been a growing movement in this country to demonize and demoralize those of the Islamic faith and the latest contention: plans to build a place for Muslims to gather and worship in lower Manhattan, blocks from Ground Zero, has stirred up a deal of controversy. 

Protestors of the plan to build Park 51, an Islamic community center blocks from Ground Zero, say that its building close to the 9/11 terrorist attack is a sign of victory for Islam and/or that it is offensive to memory of the victims and to the victim's families. It is rather clear that they equate the Muslims in al Qaeda who attacked us with all Muslims. That belief is plain ignorant, downright stupid, possibly xenophobic, and borderline bigoted.

What many opponents to this so called 'Ground Zero Mosque' fail to remember, and what some politicians and media outlets do a disservice by not reminding us all, is that among those who died in the terrorist attacks there were American Muslims in those buildings and on those planes. There were American Muslims who were among the firefighters, the police, and the EMTs who responded and also perished.  And there are American Muslims today, nine years later, who are among the family members of those that died on 9/11 who have gone to this building, Park 51,to pray for over a year now before the start of this media circus, sparked by rightwing politicians, conservative talk show hosts, and hate groups. For a full year before anyone heard about it or had any vague opinion of how what happens in New York City affects their lives, American Muslims have gone to Park 51 without incident to pray and remember their lost loved ones in the same way as the other family members who lost loved ones on that horrific day. But now, thanks to a misinformed, irrational group of people riled  up on fear and hate by the likes of the rightwing propaganda machine known as Fox News and the talking heads in its employ, this plan to expand a place of prayer into a community center complete with basketball court and culinary school has turned into what fools think is a terrorist day camp right next door to sacred land.

Nine years ago our great nation was shaken to its core by an attack that we couldn't foresee because we couldn't believe was possible. We believed we were the nation all others adored and admired and should there have been enemies, surely, our leaders would have led us true for we too were the nation to respect and fear. But those leaders failed us and we did suffer a defeat the likes of which we have never before suffered and so it was only natural that we were left with feelings of deep unease. As a nation, we all pulled together, united we stood and we were embraced by the rest of the world in empathy, but it was short lived because when we looked to our leaders for leadership they instead gave us a narrative to focus our feelings of unease upon. Since 9/11 we were manipulated into believing Middle Easterners were a threat. Al Qaeda, Muslims, Arabs: all lumped together. We were manipulated into believing that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. It didn't, but that fit the narrative.

Thanks in large part to that narrative, created by the former administration and fostered by Fox News and racists such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, we have been witnesses these past few years to the rise of Islamophobia in America. Racial profiling at airports, stereotyping young Middle Eastern men as radicals and militants; we have taken our eyes off the true enemy and instead focused on our own people. When polls show that 1 out 5 Americans believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim when he really is a Christian, why does no one ask, first, how the public can be so misinformed and, second, what difference does it make?  Why, while this country slowly heals from the wounds suffered on that terrible day by a group of evil, hateful people known as al Qaeda, do some here find it necessary to fight their fellow countrymen with the courage of their ignorance in evil, hateful ways?

While two separate wars are waged in the lands of the Middle East, where thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims have died, we forget that there are American Muslims in our Armed Forces putting life and limb on the line every single day to protect the freedoms we all enjoy and believe in and value. And it too must be remembered that the point of the continuing conflict in the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that our brave men and women over there are fighting repressive regimes to secure the blessings of liberty for the people of those countries. Those people being of the majority Muslim. It cannot be without pathetic irony that Americans would be willing to sacrifice our own to protect the freedom of Muslims in foreign nations while restricting the freedoms of Muslims at home.

The latest non-controversy and phony outrage on display over this mosque is just another drummed up, overly dramatic, overblown media event perpetrated by those that seek to divide us and capitalize on that division. This new crowd claiming to be the 'real Americans,' the Conservative Republican Libertarian Tea Party Christian anti-government rightwing militia devotees of con artists like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, sycophantically regurgitating nonsense and lies they've been force fed by these sideshow actors on TV and radio about the Founding Fathers or the Constitution and flying the Gadsden flags that say 'Don't Tread on Me,' are not patriots and they do not represent most Americans, they are simply confused and misguided people having fallen victim to these sociopaths who prey upon people's deepest, darkest prejudices in order to sell books and increase ratings; people who are not interested in democracy; not interested in freedom or the will of the people. They are only interested in power and money and they will lie and re-write history if it suits them.

That this group of people should claim the Founding Fathers as the heroes of their movement is bizarre and would be disturbing if it wasn't comical. It would seem that they have no interest in reality or history. They brandish books and pamphlets claiming that they say the things they believe deep in their hearts, but one would be led to believe by their words and actions that they have never taken the time to read any of them. To speak of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution with awe and than fall back on backwards, backwoods thinking is preposterous.

"Common Sense," Thomas Paine's celebrated work that gave voice to the American colonists seeking independence from Great Britain is today being heralded by Glenn Beck and his followers because they believe Paine felt as they do about big government when he wrote about ending tyranny, yet no one in this group seems to realize that Thomas Paine isn't one of them at all. In that famous work, on his criticism of the tyrannical monarchy of English rule over the American colonies in 1776, Paine wrote:

"Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one...For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest...Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our will, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and or reason will say, it is right."

Furthermore, most fail to realize that Thomas Paine, not a Christian but a Deist like many of our Founding Fathers, was staunchly opposed to institutionalized religion, writing in "The Age of Reason," published in 1794:

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit...Soon after I had published the pamphlet Common Sense, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion...Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."  

Thomas Jefferson, also a strong critic of Christianity; so much so that he penned his own version of the Bible in an attempt to remove the mysticism of the religion and instead focus on Deist philosophy and the teachings of the man, Jesus Christ, was an outspoken, diehard advocate of separation of church and state and in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence which he famously penned there are no mentions of "endowed by their Creator," or "Supreme Judge of the world," or "Divine Providence." Jefferson makes one mention of any sort of god and it is to "nature's god," a common inference made by Deists at the time. These supposed references to god in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, phrases that people like Glenn Beck mistakenly parade on, were added by those at the time who lobbied for their inclusion in the document. Jefferson and his associates were likely the first to make the mistake of compromising with the lobbyists of the religious right. It should be noted here another very important edit to the original Declaration of Independence that had it not have been removed by the powerful influence of those representing the states of South Carolina and Georgia at the time, this country would have seen a far different version of history. Referring to further grievances with the King of Great Britain, Jefferson wrote:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death, in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain an execrable commerce, determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die."

Thomas Jefferson, writing again in 1779 for a bill enacted in 1786 in the state of Virginia entitled The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom:

"...That, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right... Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters or religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

When our Founding Fathers gathered to create our nation's first constitution, The Articles of Confederation enacted in 1781, it was again their full intention to guarantee religious freedom to all under the law as stated in Article III:

"The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever."

James Madison, in a strong argument against state supported religion, writing in 1785's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" in opposition to a proposed bill establishing a provision for the teachers of Christian Religion:

"If religion be not within the cognizance of civil government how can its legal establishment be necessary to civil government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In some instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government instituted to secure and perpetuate it needs them not. Such a government will be best supported by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any sect, nor suffering any sect to invade those of another."

Document after document, law after law, the principle of religious freedom has been advocated and upheld throughout the original colonies and all newly annexed land such as The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, concerning the government for the newly acquired territory northwest of the Ohio River, that states:

"No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory."

And finally, it is to the United States Constitution signed in to law in 1787, were it is written plain as day in the very first Amendment to it in our Bill of Rights:

"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." 

This is America and among the many liberties that we cherish here is the freedoms of religion and expression. America is not a Christian nation. That is not an opinion, it is fact. The founders of this republic held various religious beliefs and the history of immigration to these lands even before the formation of this nation included a large number who were escaping religious oppression and persecution. The founding documents that we hold dear in America do not mention the establishment of religion, Christian or otherwise, as its basis of law and governance. In fact, these documents explicitly define freedom of religious expression as a cornerstone principle of this uniquely great nation.

The 'War on Terrorism' that resulted from 9/11 is not a Christian vs. Muslim fight; it is not an American vs. Arab fight. It is a fight between those who stand for freedom and those that stand for the restrictions of freedoms in the name of religious fundamentalism. And religious fundamentalism comes in all varieties. Religion can easily be made to stand as the ultimate excuse for the evils men do. It has been made to do so in the past and it likely will in the future. But is it a case of one bad apple spoiling the bunch? That horrendous, often violent acts committed by people who claim to be of one faith using religion to justify evil makes all of that faith evil? If it was those claiming to be Muslims who murdered people on 9/11, should we really blame all Muslims and forbid them from building mosques? Should we also forbid the building of churches because hospitals and clinics have been bombed and doctors murdered by Christians who believed that they were doing God's work? It was after all an American Christian named Eric Rudolph who bombed several clinics and the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. It was also an American whose Christian faith and anti-government views that would have fit right in with those self-proclaimed 'Real Americans' in the Tea Party today that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, nineteen of which were children under the age of six, yet no one protested the building of churches in Oklahoma City.

There are nearly 3 million American Muslims living in the United States today who revere 9/11 the same way as other Americans; who share American values and beliefs but who in recent years have been treated like outcasts because of what a few have done and find little opportunity for outreach and communication. There are nearly a million American Muslims and easily over a hundred mosques in New York City today despite these hateful, spiteful, misinformed Park 51 protesters who must also be oblivious to the fact that there is already a mosque in lower Manhattan that has stood there since the early seventies, before the World Trade Center was even built. If we hold them to their word, the founders of Park 51 seek to open interfaith dialogue, build bridges with the community through common goals, and forge strong relationships in an effort to spread understanding about the true nature of Islam - not the distorted, ugly form of al Qaeda's Fundamentalist Islam that too many believe to be the only Islam. And where better than the capital of the world, New York City? Where better than the place that, unfortunately stands for the worst of it? So, while a minority of people oppose the buildings of mosques or Islam or Muslims outright while claiming sensitivity, it must be asked: "Where is your sensitivity?" As for Ground Zero being a sacred, holy place I ask that you would consider why a place for people to go to play basketball, learn to cook, and yes, worship is any more offensive than the burger joints and strip clubs in the area now or perhaps more offensive, than a shopping mall built on Ground Zero as opposed to blocks from it, contained within the new Freedom Tower. It should be a question now as to why the founders of Park 51 would want anything to do with that area, now that the crazy viewers of Fox News flock there daily to abuse the Muslims going there along with the thousands upon thousands every year who make the pilgrimage to this tourist mecca. But that is their choice; part of the freedom that comes guaranteed in this country.

So what is the argument to be made now? It is not legal or moral issues. It is not sensitivity issues. What else can it be besides plain, 'they are not us' arguments? Well, to those who oppose this community center I ask that you ask yourselves: What kind of people are we to say that we stand for freedom but restrict it for such nonsensical reasons? What kind of people are we to say that we're proud to be American but don't consider other Americans 'American.' Are they not good enough? The wrong religion, maybe? The wrong sexual orientation, perhaps? Not quite the right color, even? In a land where all people from all lands have come and continue to come since its inception, how could anyone claim that there is any one right kind of American? Yes, some of us look different and talk different and think different and, yes, worship different, but we are all Americans and, may I add, human beings. Where does it come from that we have to be so judgmental? Why do we need to question other peoples motives? Why do we suspect each other and fear what's different? Why do we get angry at what we don't understand?

Rest assured to know that there are those who seek to capitalize on these divisions and use these feelings of unease, fear, and anger to their advantage. Politicians with the help of the media can sway public opinion like a sword and with that sword we have often times cut ourselves. With a little suggestion unease can lead to fear. A little rhetoric and fear can lead to anger. Turn up some vitriol and anger can lead to hate and there are those that can coax that hate into war and genocide. Have we forgotten history? You need not go back to post-World War I Germany for an example of a nation seeking a scapegoat in a minority group for its troubles.  Here in this country we too have the sorry history of the mistreatment of Jews and Catholics and Mormons and Irish and Italians and Chinese and Hispanics and Latinos and Homosexuals etcetera, etc. Do we forget the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II? The relocation of Native Americans? Do we forget slavery ever happened? Do we pretend there was no before and during the Civil Rights Movement?

Back in the 1950's, when schools and public utilities were segregated in the south, it was the popular opinion that blacks were inferior to whites. There was no logical or intellectual basis to this argument, just accustomed irrational thinking that when challenged by reason was met with hostility. When the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas came out ending segregation in public schools, there was a backlash of white people against blacks and against the federal government. These people were furious.  They didn't exactly know why they were furious, it may have been the false fear that their way of life would be taken over by blacks or the government, or that they were no longer safe, whatever that means, but this group was not at ease and there were those agitators then who whipped up the public into fury and hate. Blind, dumb hate. Soon enough it was angry, violent people that made up the majority with the full backing of the popular opinion, the police, and the KKK. It is hard to look back on history to see similarities today and not be dismayed that we have not learned from our mistakes. We should remember what hate has done in our past. The beatings, rape, and murder. Children's heads bashed in. Hate did these things. Hate blew up homes and churches. Hate blew to pieces the bodies of four innocent little girls who were at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama one day in 1963 learning about forgiveness and love. And this was a church. White people blew up a church because black people prayed there? Was it not to the same god the black people prayed to as the white people? There was no respect for religion or god, just hate for the different people. So why today, do 'good Christians' say they stand up for their religion when really they just hate the different people? Why do they hate Muslims, Hispanics, Homosexuals?

These 'good Christians' who you'll find rallying over the building of mosques, immigration, and same sex marriage shouting and cursing and threatening violence are exactly the same hateful, ignorant type of people back then that screamed at children entering school, set fist and fire hose and dogs and billy clubs on people in the street, murdered men of god who preached of change through nonviolence, and others including those four little girls. So I ask that we think of them when there's an arson at a mosque.  Think of them when people are beaten and stabbed for being Muslim. Think of them when 'good Christians' take to burning the Koran. It makes absolutely no sense to me because they all believe in the same god and here in America we are free to practice whatever religion we choose and it is a choice; no one is born Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Agnostic or Atheist or what have you. Religion is not in the blood and it is not in DNA and neither is hate. So where does this blind, ugly, stupid hate come from?

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