This week America bore witness to the unfolding of two disturbing incidents: First, in Irving, Texas, where high school teachers and law enforcement authorities were challenged over their capacity to tell the difference between a clock and a bomb – and over whether the student, an American named Ahmed Mohamed, was targeted because he is black and Muslim.
Second, Thursday night in Rochester, where a question posed to Donald Trump affirmed that there is no regional barrier to ignorance and prejudice: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” a man wearing a Trump T-shirt told the Donald at a town hall meeting: “You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”
“Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us,” the unidentified man continued. “That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”
Unlike John McCain, who in 2008 took the microphone away from a woman who called Obama an Arab and strongly rejected the woman’s assertions, defending Obama as “a decent family man,” Trump flubbed his opportunity to demonstrate any statesmanlike capacity.
“We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things,” Trump told him. “You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
Yes, Mr. Trump, and today a lot of people are saying that you are still the same birther you’ve been for years. Indeed, as recently as July you told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, when you were asked whether you thought Obama was born in America, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know why he wouldn’t release his records.”
You don’t know? You really don’t know?
Well, today what I know is that your Rochester questioner represents a significant part of your base. I know that a substantial part of your base, when not wearing gaudy red caps emblazoned “Make America Great Again,” is the tinfoil-cap wearing, Area 51 dwelling, EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) fearing, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) hating, Cliven Bundy and David Duke embracing loony-birds who have formed a hateful core of anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-government opposition entrenched deep within the Republican Party.
Mr. Trump, America has never ceased being great and we don’t need your cap to tell us that.
One of the things that makes it great is that Americans like Barack Obama can become our president, immigrants like Justin Bieber can become teen idols, immigrant actors like Salma Hayek can become movie stars and that the Cuban-born son of Palestinians can become governor of New Hampshire.
Even you, Mr. Trump, who had the good fortune to inherit a $100,000,000 real estate portfolio in the 1970s and turn it into a few billion dollars, are welcome to run for president along with immigrant sons like Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio.
Mr. Trump, America has never ceased being great – and one of the things that affirms it today is that in spite of all the anti-Muslim vitriol that you failed to condemn in Rochester, Ahmed Mohamed’s place in the American public square has been assured by a generous outpouring of public support and sympathy for a nerdy young Texan with a passion for inventing things – that’s what makes us great!
Violence in school communities like Newtown, Roswell and Sparks has made us rightfully vigilant, especially in schools where large numbers of vulnerable young people and their teachers spend long days in largely unguarded, or lightly guarded environments. Parents fear for their children’s safety and authorities certainly have a responsibility to be alert to threats.
But that is no excuse for what happened in Irving, Texas. It couldn’t have taken very long to see that Ahmed’s clock was no bomb – no explosives were present – but the teachers and police, perhaps responsive to increasingly strident and hysterical Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-Muslim actions, especially in Texas, failed Ahmed Mohamed and his family, failed the schools and failed the community – theirs and ours.
The plight of the ninth-grader who was handcuffed, interrogated, taken to a juvenile detention facility, fingerprinted and, although released uncharged, suspended by MacArthur High School for three days, resonated with many Americans because they identified what happened to Ahmed for what it was – unfair and un-American, a visceral, racist attack on a boy who dared to be creative while being Muslim.
Neither Police Chief Larry Boyd, whose officers grilled Ahmed without his parents being present in clear violation of the law, nor Mayor Beth Van Duyne, described by the Dallas News as “a hero among a fringe movement that believes Muslims – a tiny fraction of the U.S. population – are plotting to take over American culture and courts,” have apologized for how Ahmed was treated.
Today, sadly, many Americans from Irving to Rochester appear to be in the thrall of a delusional hysteria unseen in America since the “Know-Nothing” movement of the 1850s and its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant platform – a platform not unlike that being embraced by many of Trump’s supporters – and is decidedly un-American.
CNN estimates that 54 percent of Trump supporters, like Trump’s questioner in Rochester, believe that President Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims in America are a threat to the nation. Across the nation there are frequent acts of discrimination and prejudice against Muslims. Across the nation, Muslims – and people attackers think may be Muslims, like Sikhs and Christian Arabs – have been attacked and mosques vandalized.
Donald Trump’s refusal to repudiate the birthers, deniers and haters in his midst is cynical and incendiary – and must be rejected.
I asked in an online column on May 29, “Is Muslim becoming the new ‘N word’?”
Today, as long as presidential candidates like Donald Trump and mayors like Beth Van Duyne are more interested in pursuing power than in pursuing truth and peace, my answer is, sadly, an unequivocal yes.