Somewhere in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Black Death killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people. Tumors would grow on glands and in groins; hard, oozing lumps the size of eggs. Blackened fingers and bloody vomit; bodies lining streets.
We know now that poor sanitation and an aggressive rodent population caused all these deaths. Through years of science and study, we know a whole lot about the transmission of viruses and bacterium; the importance of hand-washing and waste management. We know all of this now.
But at the time, people didn’t know all of that stuff. So they blamed the Jews.
The Jews, you see, were isolated in the ghettos, and thus some were spared from the plague. So the Christians decided that the Jews were behind all of it. That they had poisoned wells, to bring disease on their enemies. That they were hateful, intolerant people. That they were on the wrong side of God.
And so they killed them.
Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed. Jewish people were tortured until they confessed to crimes that they did not commit. In the town of Strasbourg, France alone: nine hundred Jews were publicly burned alive, their money and valuables later distributed after their screams were silenced.
This happened hundreds of years ago, and so historians debate what actually happened. There aren’t a lot of accurate records. But they basically agree on a few key points. Greed played a role, for one. It certainly provided an incentive, as the property of the Jews killed in riots legally became the property of those who killed them.
And religion played a role too. After all, the Jews killed Jesus; what other evidence do you need that Jews are evil, hateful, monstrous people?
But mostly, this happened because of fear.
Fear of others. Fear of the unknown. Fear as a destructive, evil force. Fear as the motivation to kill, to hurt, to shun, to terrify.
Of course, fear is also the trait that has allowed our species to survive. We are wired for self-preservation and designed for survival. Fear keeps us alive. We are taught, by nature and nurture both, to avoid the unknown, to seek safety in numbers. Fear is incredibly useful: “Get away from that shark!” “Don’t stand so close to the edge!” “Are you too close to those firecrackers?” So I get it. We need fear. We wouldn’t be here without it. Fear keeps us safe.
It can also destroy.
Fear had a lot to do with the Holocaust. It’s how the Mongols were able to control an empire they had no tactical way of commandeering. It had much to do with the Trail of Tears. It had a lot to do with the atrocities we likely don’t know as much about: the murder of French Creoles in Haiti. The near-extinction of the Herero tribe in present-day Namibia, then occupied by German soldiers. The Moriori of New Zealand. The Ottoman government’s systemic extermination of the Armenian people within the Turkish borders. The Irish Potato Famine. The Rwandan Tutsis. Thousands of others. Thousands of stories exactly like these: mass death and persecution = fear + greed + hate + ignorance, as broken down over centuries of human struggle and survival.
Reader, I’m going to make a guess now. I’m guessing that you read the above list — the Holocaust, the Mongol reign of Genghis Khan, Rwanda, etc etc — and I’m going to guess that your brain sort of flickered through it, reading that list without really reading it.
Go back and read it again. Add the 500,000 people killed in Tibet. Add the Kurds in Turkey. Think about the forcible expulsion of the indigenous peoples in Russia under the reign of Stalin. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Picture the most painful loss you’ve ever experienced — the death of a sibling, child, relative, or friend.
Now imagine that happening every day.
Now imagine that happening ten million times.
You can’t, right? You can’t. You can’t actually picture that much death and destruction, because our brains aren’t wired to comprehend pain and grief on that kind of a scale.
And because all this talk falls under the metric of “history,” we can turn it off, dismiss it. To think, with a shake of the head, how lucky we are, that we weren’t alive during those terrible times, and go back to reading on our iPads.
Try this for me, because it is possible. Imagine yourself as a Jewish person living during the time of the Black Death. Actively try to picture your daily life: what buying food must have been like, your home, your children, your parents, your spouse. What it smelled like. How the air felt. The texture of rough cloth on your skin, your feet and face perhaps a little dirty, splashing water from a bucket on a cold morning.
It’s possible to imagine venturing outside your community and feeling the sense of fear and panic rising around others as you pass; possible to picture the moment, late in the evening, when a heavy-booted soldier knocks at the door and you know that it is too late. Possible to imagine being herded into a wooden house with your family and friends and neighbors, the sudden heat of the fire as it begins to surround you and envelop everything in a smoky, terrifying glow, your eyes burning, your mouth choking, your hands losing their grip on your loved ones. It is not pleasant. But it is possible to imagine that.
It’s much harder to picture yourself lighting the torch and setting the house on fire. It’s harder to imagine yourself dividing up the possessions of the dead, the ashes of their skin and bones still clouding the air.
It’s harder for me to picture that, anyway. I guess I can’t speak for you.
I can, however, picture myself drawing my coat around me closely and looking at my neighbors with a pinched, suspicious face: it’s happened when I walk alone on the street late at night, it’s happened when a strange man moves too close to me on the bus, it’s happened in large crowds in my big city. Self-preservation. Fear.
I don’t like that I can see myself in that role. I hate it. I understand it, and perhaps it has kept me safe and alive, but that doesn’t mean that I like that it is true.
I can picture myself, a fourteenth-century peasant, whispering with my friends about the evils of the Jews. About how their hair and their clothes are not like mine; how their customs are strange and not like mine; how they smell or are dirty or poor. How I could mistake, with relative ease, those qualities for “evil.”
And I hate that this is true. That I can see myself in that role, too. But I have the power to imagine it. And I hate that I do.
I understand it because I’ve tried consciously for years to break myself of this habit, this human tendency to view “others” with suspicion. I have failed, as we all have, in ways that are mostly small and always shameful. In ways that most of us don’t want to admit to one another. In ways that most of us don’t want to admit to ourselves: that our fear has gotten in the way of fostering connection.
But that is, again, just me.
Because perhaps there are those who have no problem seeing themselves stomping in with their soldiers’ boots and setting homes on fire.
Or perhaps I am not being generous enough. Perhaps it is just that most people do not see the connective tissue that spans between the whispers and the fear and the pointing out of “other,” and cannot see the forward-moving thread that connects that fear to death and murder, to violence and flames.
Maybe I’m just responding to the news that a man was thrown off a bus in London this week because he “looked shifty,” when what that really means was, “looked Muslim,” and that’s not happening in history, that is happening right now.
Or maybe I’m just responding to this video I watched of a man screaming at another man during a town hall meeting, “Every one of you are terrorists,” as other white people applaud and clap and cheer. And that’s not history. That’s happening in my country. It is happening right now.
Or maybe I’m just responding to the story of the man who hailed a taxicab, and asked his Muslim cab driver repeatedly about ISIS and Pakistan, who asked him to wait outside while he retrieved his wallet, and who returned with a rifle and shot the driver in the back.
That’s not history. That’s in Pennsylvania. That’s my state. That is happening right now.
Or maybe, just maybe, I might just be responding to the news that at a mosque in my hometown, several blocks from a rehearsal studio where I work, a coffeeshop where I sit, a pizza place that gives out fresh basil plants to its regular customers, and a bunch of dudes wearing long robes that I nod at politely when I walk by, who smile and who exist in the world as I do, who live in the same city that I do, who take the same subway and walk the same streets that I do — I might be responding to the news that last night a red pickup truck drove by the Islamic Society and rolled a severed pig’s head onto the doorstep.
That’s not history. That’s my home.
This is my HOME.
And it bears repeating, for the people who cannot and will not listen, that all Muslims are not terrorists. That Islam is a religion of peace. That the Bible and the Koran are comparable both in their languages of love and their violent messages of hate.
Yes. There is hatred in the hearts of some Muslims. This is true.
There is also hatred in the hearts of some Christians. Some Jews. Some white people. Some black people. There is hatred in some people.
But not most. Certainly not all. A small fraction of people crave violence and destruction, are motivated by fear and by greed and by dogma and by power, and have done so throughout history. This much I also know to be true.
It bears repeating, for those who refuse to listen, that a presidential candidate openly advocating to ban the admission of all Muslims to the United States is at odds with this part of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It bears repeating that these are the actions of someone motivated by greed and by ego, who can only personally profit from the fear and the hatred of others.
It bears repeating that if a mass murder is committed by someone who shares your skin tone or your gender or your religion, you are not a mass murderer and are therefore not responsible. That because we do not require all white men to publicly denounce the mass shooters who have been white men, to say, ‘I am one of the good white guys!’ we similarly have no call to ask the same of those whose language or religion or skin does not look like our own.
It bears repeating that the overwhelming majority of the people fleeing ISIS and seeking refuge are victims, and not terrorists. Are people like you, and like me.
It bears repeating that I, like you, am afraid.
Of course I feel fear. It is a terrifying time to be alive. I am afraid of being killed by a gun. I am nervous in large crowds. I don’t like walking alone at night, and I don’t like taking the subway, and I watch the news and I draw the blankets around me and I picture how fast a bullet would rip through the soft fibers, burrow into my skin, shred my bones and my muscles, wonder how long it would take for my lungs to gasp as red blood would flow out of a hole that had not been there only seconds before.
But we are not fourteenth-century peasants. We are people with technology and medicine, with science and with hospitals, with grocery stores and with sneakers and jeans. We hold the power to access a world’s worth of information in the palms of our hands, we can fly across countries in airplanes made of metal and gasoline, we can send a rocket to another planet and we can conduct a symphony orchestra and we can read thousands of languages and we can build skyscrapers and we can map the human genome and there is so much that we can do, and do well.
But we can’t manage to shut off our brain’s capacity for fear and for hatred. We can’t just flip that switch and be done with it. So we must work a little harder. We must teach one another, and ourselves.
The antidote to a bad guy with a gun is not a hug. I am not so naive as all that. If someone were to charge into this room waving a gun at me right now, I can almost guarantee that I would not stand up and cry, “I love you,” as the bullet left the chamber. I’m not that person. I am not that brave, or that stupid, as your perspective may be.
But I know that the solution is not severing a pig’s head and rolling it out of a flatbed truck onto the steps of a community center.
It is not shouting at a Muslim that he is a terrorist. It is not charging at a cab driver with a rifle. It is not kicking a man off a bus. It is not denying help and shelter and food to anyone who is in fear of their lives, who is running from devastation and evil that many of us cannot imagine.
I don’t know that there is a “solution,” a means of correcting human nature. I don’t know that I can survey all of human history, of our collective years of killings and murders and tortures, of our genocides in the name of religion and greed, thousands of years of brutality and hatred and evil and death, and say, “I really humanity really has a chance of pulling it together this time.”
But we owe it to ourselves to try.
For the record, I am a white woman who stands in solidarity with the Muslim community. I invite you to do the same.
If you’d like more information on how to be a good ally to a Muslim-American in your own community, this list is beautiful. I hope you will read it and share.
And this compilation of Muslim-Americans tweeting their military ID photos is pretty great, too.
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