In his subtly titled Monday column, "America's History of Fear," Nicholas Kristof compared opponents of building a mosque in New York City two blocks from the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks to the fear-mongering sheep that "burn[ed] witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust."
Kristof might still be smarting from the verbal beating inflicted by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt - Kristof led his column off with an apparent reference to his interview with Hewitt on the mosque.
A radio interviewer asked me the other day if I thought bigotry was the only reason why someone might oppose the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. No, I don't. Most of the opponents aren't bigots but well-meaning worriers - and during earlier waves of intolerance in American history, it was just the same.
Screeds against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque. The starting point isn't hatred but fear: an alarm among patriots that newcomers don't share their values, don't believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.
Followers of these movements against Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and other immigrants were mostly decent, well-meaning people trying to protect their country. But they were manipulated by demagogues playing upon their fears - the 19th- and 20th-century equivalents of Glenn Beck.
Most Americans stayed on the sidelines during these spasms of bigotry, and only a small number of hoodlums killed or tormented Catholics, Mormons or others. But the assaults were possible because so many middle-of-the-road Americans were ambivalent.
Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days. But we should also recognize that historically this distrust has led us to burn witches, intern Japanese-Americans, and turn away Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
Does Kristof seriously believe Muslims are going to be targeted for killing by his fellow Americans if the mosque goes up as planned? Such attacks didn't transpire after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and it won't happen tomorrow either, no matter how low Kristof's opinion of his fellow citizens.
Kristof eventually brought up actual concerns about Muslims, albeit using euphemisms:
Historically, unreal suspicions were sometimes rooted in genuine and significant differences. Many new Catholic immigrants lacked experience in democracy. Mormons were engaged in polygamy. And today some extremist Muslims do plot to blow up planes, and Islam has real problems to work out about the rights of women....
That would be stoning. In the same paragraph, Kristof quickly praised "moderate Muslims" for electing a female president in Indonesia:
...The pattern has been for demagogues to take real abuses and exaggerate them, portraying, for example, the most venal wing of the Catholic Church as representative of all Catholicism - just as fundamentalist Wahabis today are caricatured as more representative of Islam than the incomparably more numerous moderate Muslims of Indonesia (who have elected a woman as president before Americans have).