Few things have more power over us than fear. At its bidding, we disregard otherwise dear values, cast aside critical safeguards, and do horrible things otherwise inconceivable. Ordinary people will rise up spontaneously, or “spontaneously,” in great numbers to do its bidding. We need to meet the emergency, you understand, and in that state we just don’t have the time and the stakes are far too high for the ordinary way of things to handle. Not all that long ago, an American leader told us that even if he had 99% certainty that the perceived threat amounted to nothing, the 1% doubt justified anything to combat it. That anything included torture. Through the suffering of our chosen martyrs, always someone else, we become free.
Syria, a country wracked by a civil war between a vile dictator and a vile group of religious fanatics, the latter of whom the United States rolled out the red carpet for in its misbegotten war of pleasure against Iraq and bungled aftermath, naturally has a tremendous refugee problem. Its huddled masses, poor, tired, and desperate, would probably like freedom. They would certainly like freedom from the prospect of marauders with guns out to murder them and their families. Maybe they haven’t imbibed every jot and tittle of western, post-Enlightenment values, but the hope that oneself and one’s children might escape slaughter knows no borders.
I have my doubts as to the popularity of such values among Americans. Few fret at the trifling burden of preaching, but we rarely care for the weight of practice. Because an unrelated group killed a large number of innocent people in Paris a week ago, we learn that the United States cannot permit a single Syrian refugee into the country. Presidential candidates have said so. Congress has said so. The governors of many states, including my own, have said so and pledged that should refugees come within their jurisdiction, they shall do all in their power to deprive them of a chance to start anew.
They said the same things about the Germans, a militaristic people unsuited to democratic government. They said it about the Irish, enthralled to medieval religious leaders and sworn to do their bidding. Massachusetts even deported thousands of them. Slavs and Italians infamously came from the armpit of Europe. Change the ocean crossed and one finds much the same rhetoric deployed against the Chinese and Japanese. Do a ninety degree turn and you’ll hear it about people from Latin America. Take a small step back and you’ll hear it about black American refugees fleeing the South for the dubious safety of northern cities. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free, but not those poor, tired, huddled masses. They exhibit far too much huddling, poverty, fatigue, and yearning.
Anyone we let in must withstand scrutiny, of course. The world has no shortage of dangerous fanatics who mean to do us harm. They hate us, as the saying goes, for our freedoms and seek tirelessly to destroy them. Speaking of those, some of our would-be leaders have decided to run for Ayatollah in lieu of President, declaring that we can only trust those Syrians who we can prove sufficiently Christian. Presumably if elected, he would establish an Inquisition to assess their credentials. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella, though not so much for the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The Catholic Monarchs doubtless considered that working as designed. Others have advocated databases to track them. A yellow crescent badge must come up eventually. Failing that, perhaps tattoos will do the job.
We can say that these people don’t speak for us, but we keep voting for them. So it has transpired before. So it probably will again. Abraham Lincoln corresponded with Joshua Speed on the subject of Kansas back in 1855:
You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.
We can say that these leaders don’t speak for our values, but we keep electing them. I wouldn’t bet anything I wanted to keep on any governor losing an election over the Syrian refugees. Nor would many southern politicians likely lose an election for excessive enthusiasm for slavery. Of course many of us don’t bother with the conventional pieties. Only those who wish to pose as moderates need them. Speed’s rhetorical abhorrence of slavery might play well in his Kentucky, which remained as committed to slavery indefinitely in the 1850s as South Carolina did, but it wouldn’t do to sound too much like a Carolina radical.
We can say that we face a unique threat which justifies our fear, but accidental discharges of handguns kill more Americans every year than innocents who died in Paris. Even deliberate shootings don’t warrant this sustained, organized rush for a less humid pair of trousers, no matter how clearly terroristic. Our leaders, aspirant and otherwise, have invented nothing particularly new. We have our traditions of fear, involving both “degenerate” immigrants and the horrific prospect of a freely moving black person.
Though we imagine fear as general and a concern for security as universal, both turn highly selective in practice. We do not calibrate our responses to the gravity of the threat, or to the likelihood of something happening, but rather we choose which perils we deem emergencies and which we consider merely ordinary. An understandable panic might explain immediate responses, but we maintain the same behaviors for decades on end. We don’t do calculatedly, with malice aforethought. We decide which people deserve protection and which punishment. Their deeds, real or imagined, rarely enter into it. They, whoever we choose this time around, come to us as curiously pathetic titans. They will destroy us all, but somehow remain our inferiors in every way that matters. We imagine not flesh and blood, but evil that cloaks itself in the semblance of people.
If I told you that a murderous band of sadistic rapists roamed the country at will and occupied high positions in the government, from which they exerted effective control over it, you would think me mad. I only named the slaveholders, their habits, and correctly stated their influence throughout most of the antebellum period. If I told you about a police state that aggressively monitored the internal movements of its people and vigorously suppressed dissent, would you think of Stalin’s Russia or Calhoun’s South Carolina? Security, fear’s respectable alias, demanded similar human sacrifices. So long as we imagine perfect security possible, we will continue feeding lives to it. You don’t sacrifice people you find valuable, of course. You sacrifice the expendable. Foreigners, outsiders, dissidents, anybody who doesn’t fit your vision of the good society. My governor would like to feed Syrians to what Corey Robin calls the Moloch of national security.
Moloch, if you don’t know your Bible, meant either a hollow idol in which human sacrifices burned or the god the idol represented. He preferred his feast in the form of babies. Whether this ever happened with any regularity or not, I can’t say. Imagining one’s neighbors as literally baby-eating monsters seems far too popular the world over to take at face value. Moloch features heavily in one of my favorite poems, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Must we keep feeding our Molochs? If starved long enough, the heavy judger of men might at last consume itself instead.
Fear of phantoms will only satisfy Moloch for so long. Eventually it will want more and fear’s apostles will eagerly provide. They know that by aligning with the security state, they have immunized themselves. Every society has a surfeit people deemed undesirable. Often they work hard to produce as many as possible. The lives burned away in all the persecuting horrors perfume the air. The screams make for a symphony. Thus Moloch blesses his faithful, orthodox practitioners of that most demanding rule: Do unto others, good and hard. The ritual ablutions cannot entirely hide their joy. At last they can run free and do as they always wished. They partake of forbidden pleasures sanctified by exquisitely selective altruism. Back in the day, priests would burn or otherwise dispose of only a part of offerings. The rest they would enjoy for themselves, thus making their living. If we pass such vast distances and find ourselves in the same place, we should wonder if we ever left.
So, as Lincoln wrote:
As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
We have come so far now that we count sufficiently white Catholics as equal, provided they join us in counting the rest as otherwise. The Russian Empire, Putin’s, Stalin’s, or the Tsar’s, awaits us, but why go? We can get it all at home. Had we come to a country born innocent, we might say that we accepted an intellectual immigration. Always broad-minded, we made room in America for a Russian police state. Our national ancestors did one better, though. They didn’t need to go study some other country to learn the arts of fear. They created it for themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, whips in hand. They did the same in the New England forests with hot lead.
We choose not to remember that part. The nativists don’t occupy much of a position in the national memory, save as an ordeal faced by certain immigrant groups and now happily behind them. We certainly don’t recall how they got right with nativism for the next wave of immigrants, who somehow came by all the same sins that their parents never did. To join an us, they agreed to create a them. The wages of our sins thus find repose in the most popular of places: our victims.
The faith in a united, narrow consensus America with few great rifts between its people demands we deny the controversy. A land can hardly claim perfection at birth and endless improvement thereafter, the ne plus ultra of American nationalism, and admit Americans as a fractious, divided people. Instead it must paper over the division by deciding who doesn’t count. The American consensus endures by writing its critics and its victims out of memory. There one must recognize not merely a normal, if regrettable, tendency toward self-flattery but rather another line in the liturgy of fear. It would not do to undermine the values of the nation, to corrupt its racial purity, and enfeeble the race by amalgamation or debase it by placing equal what nature, gods, or some other mouthpiece for our hatreds declared unequal. The eternal creed goes by many names, but works its bloody way through the world over and the voyages of the damned continue. Enough of us, Joshua Speed endlessly reborn, vote to ensure it. We know where the voyages end, whether with bullets or starvation or a crematoria. No evil, however notorious, lacks for eager accomplices.
Once we told slaves to endure for all eternity. Once we said No Irish Need Apply and sought to keep them from the country while they starved at home. Once we met black refugees from the South with a northern wing of the Klan. Once we sent a ship full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany. Now we tell Syrians to stay home and wait for ISIS to come get them.
Every time the warmed up the old idol and got our human sacrifices in a row, we found dissenters in our number. Now and then, we toss them in the fire with the rest. However much we may admire them, we do so from a healthy remove. Taking sides in disputes long ended costs us little. When the same dispute reappears, we suddenly find ourselves living in the moment. What can we do? Our hands are tied. This time, like all the other times, differs so much that we can’t draw on past lessons. We pretend we can do no other, save to do mercilessly unto others. Then we contemplate our especially energetic species of inaction and declare our hands clean.
It all seems perfectly reasonable, just like that bit toward the end of Huck Finn with the steamboat explosion. Did the explosion hurt anyone?
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.