Collective Guilt for 9-11: The Ground Zero Mosque and Muslim Americans as the Enemy Within

In a recent blog post, Andrew Sullivan writes that the whole dust-up surrounding the Ground Zero mosque has been a revelation to him: conservatives, even the intellectual ones, really do make no distinctions between your average walking around Muslim American and Osama Bin Laden; they really do see Muslim Americans, not as individuals, but as cartoonish stereotypes and in collective guilt terms (that is, in terms akin to how 1930s Germans saw German Jews). A civilizational war, with Muslim Americans treated at home as the enemy within, is what conservatives want.

Here’s Andrew Sullivan responding to Charles Krauthammer’s opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque (which is, actually, a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero and hidden from view by larger buildings, but never mind):

It is worse than offensive. It is a conflation of American Muslims with al Qaeda – a conflation Bin Laden has been eager to establish for years. That Krauthammer and so many other conservatives simply assume this conflation is a real eye-opener for me. I thought they made a distinction between foreign Jihadists and American Muslims, were in fact proud of the way in which American Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected both the nihilism of Islamist violence but also the segregation of many Muslims in Europe.

It appears I was mistaken. The war, as they understand it, is one between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam as a whole. They have forgone Bush and Rice for Cheney and Falwell. And religious freedom? One more expendable principle in the pursuit of power through demagoguery.

Sullivan, of course, nails it here, and I can only hope that Americans who care about our country’s Enlightenment heritage and the Bill of Rights wake up to this (as Sullivan has): conservatives mean to replace the complex and individual Muslim American citizen with a caricature for the reception of collective guilt; they mean to replace Jeffersonian individualism with old school scapegoating and 1930s style Herderite nationalism.

And history teaches us where collective guilt and 1930s style Herderite nationalism lead us. At the bottom of this page is a little reminder: an image of a gutted synagogue after Kristallnacht (“the night of the broken glass”).

Collective guilt combined with patriotic nationalism is exactly the formulation that Germans used to justify Kristallnacht against German Jews. In Paris, a Polish Jew murdered a German Embassy attaché and German Jews were the objects of retaliation. Here’s how Ed Beattie of the United Press (UP), in November of 1938, opened his report on what came to be called Kristallnacht. This is what a gesture of retaliation for collective guilt looks like:

BERLIN (UP) – The government called a halt to a Nazi campaign of violence against Jews throughout Germany today after synagogues everywhere had been burned, shops and their contents wrecked and thousands of Jews arrested.

Fourteen hours after the violence began, at an hour apparently set by Nazi officialdom, Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, ordered the destruction stopped. He indicated new official measures were planned against Jews in retaliation for the assassination of a German Embassy attaché in Paris by a young Polish-German Jew.

Germany’s “further answer to Jewry” would be given through laws and decrees, Dr. Goebbels stated.

Nazi mobs surged through the streets of cities and towns throughout the Reich and Austria, beginning at mid-night and lasting until mid-afternoon, in a systematic campaign of destruction.

The Nazi mobsters were instructed by party officials not to start until midnight so as not to interfere with the celebration of the anniversary of the 1923 Munich beer cellar putsch.

Police made no effort to interfere as the crowds set fire to synagogues, smashed shop windows, demolished furniture and stocks of goods and manhandled Jews. Persons who expressed sympathy for the Jews were maltreated, and some were arrested.

Do you see what’s coming? Republicans like Krauthammer, Kristol, Palin, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and Gingrich, in demagoging the Ground Zero mosque issue, are setting the stage, when a serious international crisis emerges, for an American version of Krisallnacht, a rampage against Muslim Americans for their collective guilt.

The bedrock American principle of treating citizens as individuals, not as members of collectives on whom we apportion guilt or praise, is at stake here. The Ground Zero mosque is a historic test of our Bill of Rights and our nation’s Enlightenment character.

Will we be a nation of Jeffersonian or Herderites?

The choice is before us.

1938 Interior of Berlin synagogue after Kristallnacht.jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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