The Shaming of America

It took decades of violence and terror before Israel was struck by the kind of xenophobia and incitement unleashed in the U.S. by the Paris attacks.

A Syrian man cries as he embraces his family after arriving at Lesbos by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, November 13, 2015.
AFP

One attack, thousands of miles away, conquered the United States, or large parts thereof. Homicidal maniacs from ISIS murdered scores of innocents in Paris but the fallout from their assault traveled across the ocean, corroding America’s political discourse, debasing its principles, infusing the public sphere with racist incitement and tarnishing its image throughout the world. Ronald Reagan’s shining city on the hill was painted black by his would-be successors.

It wasn’t just the demands to stop accepting Syrian refugees and their Holocaust-era precedents, disturbing as they are. It wasn’t even a legitimate claim that might be made that alongside the campaign against ISIS, Islam needs to urgently heal itself. The shock came from the appalling words of arrogance and hate and from the electoral rewards that they might reap. It was a week of shame for America, of deep disappointment for its admirers around the world.

Who are you to talk, someone might rightfully ask, but let’s make it clear: Israeli society withstood decades of violence and terror before it started to succumb to the kind of chauvinism and xenophobia that ran rampant in American this week. And even so, a politician who would compare innocent refugees to dogs, as Ben Carson did, would be castigated by many in his own party. A politician who would call for closing mosques or for considering Nazi-wannabe special registration and identity cards for Muslims, as Donald Trump did, would be roundly condemned by one and all. On Friday, Trump denied supporting databases, even though he clearly confirmed his support on two separate occasions.

The democratic antibodies in Israel’s body politic may be getting weaker by the day but those in the U.S., it seemed this week, are virtually non-existent. Suddenly America is awash with its own homegrown version of far-right European leaders such as the French Marine Le Pen, who, like Marco Rubio, likens Muslims to Nazis, or the Dutch Geert Wilders, who promised to make sure Amsterdam “has fewer Moroccans” or Hungary’s Marton Gyongyosi, the deputy leader of its Jobbik party, who had the exact same idea as Trump, albeit with one small difference: He wants to “to see how many [citizens] are of Jewish origin and present a certain national security risk to Hungary.”

Right-wing politicians who swear by American "exceptionalism" have made it exceptionally unappealing. While French President Francois Hollande instructs his people on their humanitarian duty to accept 30,000 refugees despite their losses and suffering, the GOP tells Americans of their inhumane right to reject every last one, though the refugees have caused America no harm. Imagine that: The heirs of those who changed French fries to Freedom fries a decade ago because of French perfidy find themselves shamed on the international stage by principled French courage.

Make no mistake: It’s been a field day for ISIS and other America-hating Islamic jihadists. Of course they will hate America no matter what, but the sullen, insular, saber-rattling, Muslim-baiting United States that right-wing politicians painted this week is their ultimate recruitment poster. An America that declares a “war of civilizations” under a banner of the “Judeo-Christian culture,” an America that seems primed for a crusade, this is the America that its haters are yearning for. An America that demeans, stereotypes and insults a billion and half Muslims, including three million of its own.

Yes, there have been a handful of homegrown terrorist incidents involving American Muslims, from the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, but there have been many more from white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, and I haven’t heard anyone suggest they should be rounded up or registered. American Muslims are productive members of society, coping with an already challenging public atmosphere in the wake of 9/11. Now they’re being told that their religion is hateful and their co-religionists should be kept away, as the “moderate” Jeb Bush and others have suggested, while Christian Arabs are given the red carpet treatment. Suddenly, American Muslims remind me of their co-religionist Israeli Arabs, who are treated equally under the law but nonetheless feel shunned, feared and reviled, deemed guilty by association and generalization.

Jeb’s brother George Bush understood how immoral and how dangerous it was to tar all Muslims with the same crude brush, but as many Democrats incredibly lamented this week, the GOP is no longer guided by his steady hand. For many Americans and for many of their fans abroad, it’s been heartbreaking to watch American politicians whip up a frenzy among voters and draw inevitable comparisons to the worst bigots in recent memory. It will be even more depressing if these purveyors of fear and loathing jump up in the polls.

If this is what a despicable terror attack far away in Paris can do, one can only dread how low America’s right wing could go if ISIS or Al-Qaida, God forbid, ever strike an American city. Based on what we learned this week, if the right-wingers are in power, America could turn into something completely different and far more frightening.