Driving home from work last night listening to NPR, as usual, I was left slack-jawed and muttering to myself at two stories presented back-to-back on All Things Considered: one on the plan to “map” Los Angeles’s Muslim community and the other about Italy’s expulsion of immigrants in response to the murder of a naval officer’s wife allegedly beaten to death by a Romanian immigrant. I can only hope that NPR realized the horrific juxtaposition of these stories that reeked of racism and xenophobia and intended to stir a bit of outrage. But perhaps they were just reporting the “news”…
L.A.’s deputy police chief Michael Downing said their new program is intended to identify the 500,000-700,000 Muslims in the city and determine the “trust level” so the department could serve these communities better. Of course, we are not meant to believe in this altruistic pitch, precisely because he went on to say that they were seeking groups who were “susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism.” Now, in no way am I advocating that we turn a blind eye to violent extremism or pretend that it does not exist, because surely it does, but what do we gain by singling out over half a million people for closer examination because of their faith, because of their coreligionists’ behavior? But it’s not racial profiling, he said, of course not.
In Italy, an emergency decree permits local police officials to expel EU citizens with criminal records if they are deemed dangerous to public safety. Of particular focus are the Romani people, the “gypsies,” who are criticized for being “unable to integrate into [Italian] society.” I always love how only “criminals” are accused of an inability to integrate with society; isn’t the history of the western world based on trampling indigenous culture? Neither Europeans nor Americans have ever been skilled at honoring “when in Rome…”
Certainly NPR could not do full justice to these stories in under five minutes each and I do not claim to grasp all of the mitigating factors that informed these law enforcement decisions, but it is the spirit of distrust and the politics of fear that reign across the globe that really terrifies me. I do realize that bad things happen in the world, and that that judging people by their religion and homeland is as old as these concepts themselves, and that a thug is a thug, and a terrorist a terrorist. I also realize I have the luxury of declaring such approaches to public safety preposterous (which public, by the way?). It belies the fact that my cocoon of American middle class privilege has never really been shaken. But how can we move forward as a global society when we make decisions based on suspicion and hatred?
If I am to believe that the only answer is love and the pursuit of understanding and unity, which I do, then I am obligated to rail against the way governments exploit and capitalize upon fear. A fearful citizenry is robbed of its ability to ask critical questions and loses aspects of its humanity when everyone and everything is seen through a veil of anxiety. It is not impractical or naive to believe that there is a better way, it’s just much more difficult and takes the responsibility of salvation out of the hands of the Michael Downings of the world and places it squarely in ours. We only resist a culture of fear by challenging it within ourselves.