OP-ED | The Time Is Now For Moral Courage - Politicians Can’t Be Bystanders To Hate Speech
Growing up, I was profoundly influenced by my father’s stories of growing up in the Bronx fearing the hate-filled rhetoric of Father Charles Coughlin’s radio broadcasts. Like his modern day counterpart, Donald Trump, Coughlin was a bona fide media star, with millions of listeners. “When we get through with the Jews in America,” Coughlin spewed, “They’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” In December 1938, thousands of Coughlin’s followers took to the streets of New York City, chanting, “Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!”
I also remember the deep emotion my father expressed when we found out the method by which his grandparents, who’d remained in Ukraine when my grandfather emigrated to the U.S., were murdered by the Nazis during WWII. Our family knows from personal experience the real consequences of hateful rhetoric.
That is why I am so deeply appalled that the party my father supported is aiding and abetting hate speech. That is why I was so disgusted with former Congressman Rob Simmons’ answer to WPLR’s Chaz and AJ when they posed the question: “Donald Trump calls for a temporary ban on Muslims until our legislators can figure things out — is that nutty?”
Simmons said, “No, it’s not nutty at all.” Simmons claimed that Democrats from “Barack Obama on down” are scared of Trump. I’m an unaffliated voter, and I’m scared of him, but Simmons couldn’t be more wrong (not to mention condescending: “voters have short attention spans”) about the reason why.
Either Chaz or AJ stated that “someone donated or deposited” $28,500 in San Bernadino shooter Syed Farook’s bank account before the attack, implying that it was a payment from a terrorist organization. Instead of correcting this with the known facts, namely that San Francisco-based online loan company Prosper already admitted that they were the originators of that loan, Simmons decided not to let mere “facts” get in the way of some good, bigoted fear mongering.
“They were probably getting ready to do some Christmas shopping, don’t you think? To get some Christmas presents to put under the tree — maybe a blow-up Santa Claus to put on the lawn.” He also incorrectly stated: “Oh and by the way it wasn’t a holiday party, it was a Christmas party. These were Christians.” Father Coughlin must be up in heaven, smiling down at his new Connecticut protégé.
Never mind that people of all religions were injured and killed in this attack, including a Muslim woman, Anies Kondoker, who worshiped at the same mosque as the attackers. Her husband, Saladin, appears to understand American values and the U.S. Constitution better than than Simmons or Trump ever will, observing: “The only way we can fight this crime is if we are united. If we are together I shall go to visit your church, temple, synagogues, and pray with you and mourn with you about our tragedy, and you should come to my mosque and pray with me.”
Simmons went on to quote the Breibart/Daily Caller line that the attack could have been prevented if not for political correctness, accusing Barack Obama of “demonizing” anyone who is suspicious of Muslims. Never mind that a certain Republican president, George W. Bush, made a speech warning against the demonization of Muslims in the days following 9/11. How quickly Mr. Simmons forgets his history. “We’re afraid to do anything for fear that we might be called be called ‘prejudiced’,” Simmons complained.
I call rubbish. I grew up in London during the IRA terrorist bombings and the PLO hijackings of the 1970s, Mr. Simmons. Even as an 8-year-old taking the Tube to school by myself I knew enough to report suspicious activity or an unattended package — no matter who left it. It’s called situational awareness. The reason Americans are so clueless about it is because of this country’s extreme ethnocentricity. Too many Americans appeared not to recognize that terrorism existed in the world until 9/11 because it didn’t happen here. Simmons’ comments are pure political posturing — the definition of “Ugly American.” What’s more, the kind of hate being spread by Trump and Simmons damages national security efforts at home, and puts Americans abroad at risk.
I was so disgusted by Mr. Simmons’ remarks that I called CT GOP Chairman J.R. Romano and asked him if he would repudiate them, and speak out against the dangerous rhetoric that seems to be pervading the party. Although we had a lengthy off-the-record conversation, the only on-the-record comment he would give me was the same canned response he’s given every other reporter: “The presidential is months away, I am more concerned about what Dan Malloy and the democrats are doing to hard-working families in this state. The democrats are trying to avoid talking about their culture of tax increases and budget gimmicks.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by lack of moral fortitude in lieu of political expedience in what used to be Grand Old Party. When Tea Party activists held an anti-Affordable Care Act rally on the steps of the Capitol in 2009, protesters held pictures of the Nazi concentration camp victims with the words “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.” I was appalled, as was the Anti-Defamation League, which urged Republican congressional leaders to “condemn forcefully the invocation of Holocaust imagery.” When this incident happened in 2009, I called a contact on the state GOP committee and asked him to publicly condemn this. He wouldn’t do it, claiming that he “didn’t see the actual banners.”
Of the Holocaust, we always say “never again.” When I spent time in Germany in 2007, I saw a country with an incredible history of literature, art and philosophy, yet so much of it overshadowed by one decade. How could such a refined, cultured country have descended into such depravity?
Twelve years ago, I was a docent when the “Anne Frank — A History For Our Time” exhibit came to Greenwich High School. I wrote in the Greenwich Time: “I hoped kids would take away that we need to fight racism, prejudice and persecution wherever and whenever we encounter it . . . Hitler didn’t come into power and create the death camps straight away. The road to Auschwitz was gradual and insidious. He started off targeting the weakest in society . . . when this met with no protest, it became easier to move on to the next step. The rest is history — unfortunately a history that goes on repeating itself. That leads to the next lesson: None of us can afford to be bystanders.”
My grandparents Dorothy and Murray Silverstone weren’t bystanders when Charles Lindbergh was perpetrating hate speech in the 1940s. I won’t be now. Any politician who remains a bystander for political expediency or plays tit-for-tat politics at this critical junction in our nation’s history loses my respect. It’s such a continued policy of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” that lead our country to the disgraceful and dangerous point where we stand today.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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