He races into traffic screaming. “You fools,” he cries, “you’re in danger!’”
Horns are blasting, brakes are screeching, drivers are swerving to avoid the disheveled man running down the road. “Can’t you see?” he howls. “They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already!”
To understand the paranoiac terror that has gripped much of the nation where Muslims are concerned, it is helpful to recall Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 sci-fi movie classic, and in particular, the penultimate scene described above. Invasion told the story of a small town doctor’s dawning realization that his fellow citizens were methodically being replaced by soulless alien things that were physically identical.
It was a town where you suddenly found yourself casting sidelong glances at faces you’d known for years, wondering if your friend was really your friend or an alien entity secretly planning your demise. These things looked like us, acted like us, but were fundamentally not us.
That’s a theme, and a fear, that recurs in American history — not just during the Red Scare era in which the movie was released, but also during the First World War, when German Americans faced suspicion and censure and the Second World War when Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. For that matter, it recalls Salem, Mass. where, in 1692, 150 people were accused and 19 executed for practicing witchcraft.
Last week’s hearing, then, into the radicalization of American Muslims was as predictable as it was regrettable. Make no mistake: after the Fort Hood massacre, the arrest of Jihad Jane, the would-be terrorist from Pennsylvania, and the aborted bombing of Times Square, it is high time government — and, for that matter, media — investigated the phenomenon of radicalization. We need to know how it happens and, more important, how to stop it.
But New York Rep. Peter King, who convened last week’s hearings, is, putting
it mildly, a less than credible instrument for such critical work. For one thing, there’s the hypocrisy of it: King, a once ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army, is the living embodiment of the old saw about one man’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter. Then there is the fact that King has a history of Muslim bashing. He claims, for instance, that 85 percent of mosque leaders in this country are extremists. It is a ‘‘statistic” based on nothing.
And he says Muslims refuse to help ferret out extremism in their community although, according to a University of North Carolina study, fully 40 percent of foiled terrorist plots were interrupted with the help of Muslims.
But then, that’s a fact, and what do facts matter here? Very darn little, actually. Rep. King is not driven by facts or, for that matter, by the sort of sober reasoning you’d want on such a portentous question.
Rather, King seems driven, and determined to drive us, by that primitive, unquestioning fear of the secret other, a fear we have already experienced too often in our history. And when it is over, when the fear has passed like fever, when the Japanese come out of the camps to find their homes and businesses gone, when the people accused of communism are found to be innocent after their careers and reputations are trashed, we Americans share guilty, vaguely abashed glances as if to say, What was that? What came over us?
The answer: the same thing that has come over us now, a sticky, panicked, paranoia that leave us looking sidelong at our own people. You’d think we’d learn, but we never do.
Frighten us, and the same thing invariably happens. Absent of evidence, heedless of facts, we go running in panic like the doctor in the movie. But give him this much credit:
At least he knew what he was running from.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.