There are two kinds of “American Way.” The one we prefer to dwell upon is the one based on idealistic principles like fairness, equality, and opportunity. The Bill of Rights embodies this kind of American Way. It’s the kind that prompts a tightening of the throat when we hear God Bless America being sung.
The other is the characterization we all too often tend to slide into as a nation: vindictive, xenophobic, paranoid, isolationist, racist, willfully ignorant.
While our better sides define our nationhood by a concept and not by race, ethnicity, religion or culture, our worse sides find that we need an “other” to demonize in order to achieve that warm “e pluribus unum” feeling. There was a time when the “other” was black, and we repressed him. Or he was an Indian, and we massacred him. Or he was a Communist, and we ruined him professionally and personally. Now, our most convenient goat has become the American Muslim.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, with his hearings on the so-called radicalization of American Muslims, is poised to follow in the footsteps of Sen. Joseph McCarthy⎯whose tactics against suspected Communists were so ruthless they earned him an “ism” after his name. Congressman King ought to be ashamed, but that would be to credit him with an awareness of his actions in the context of the darker side of our history that he surely does not possess.
King, sadly, has fallen prey to the other “American Way.” It’s easy and tempting for the rest of us to do the same. Let us hope, for all our sakes, that the better angels of our nature haven’t abandoned us.