When my youngest daughter was in junior high or high school, I said something to her about a major episode of World War II. I was surprised that she hadn’t heard of it.
“They never taught us about the war,” she said. “All we heard about was the Holocaust.”
I laughed because it rang all too true. I don’t recall learning much about the Holocaust when I was in school, but along about seventh grade I became obsessed with it on my own and read quite a bit about it.
But even so I sometimes thought the subject might have been overemphasized during the years my three daughters spent in Billings public schools.
Similarly, I remember growing weary of seeing references to Martin Niemoller’s famous quote about not speaking up for the victims of Nazism, until they came for him and there was no one left to speak out.
It was a fine quote, but overworked, and it was often applied to situations infinitely less alarming than the rise of Nazism.
I grew even wearier of George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In fact, I once came up with a corollary to it: “Those who once encounter Santayana’s famous quote are condemned to hear it 10,000 more times.”
My weariness with those quotes, and my wariness about the schools’ emphasis on the Holocaust, grew partly out of the sense—the naïve hope?—that the lesson had already been driven home, thank you very much. Did we really need to be told again that hatred based on race and religion was wrong?
Of course not. Or so I thought. Then came the year 2015.
Who would have believed even a year ago that a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States would be channeling Joseph Goebbels? It still seems impossible that Donald Trump could ever become president, but even if he disappeared from the national stage today, the damage has already been done.
We could hope to win the fight against terrorism when it was framed as a confrontation between civilization and barbarism, which, with plenty of justification, was how we framed World War II.
But if we propose to make this a fight between Islam and Christianity—or American Christianity only, since no one else will be foolish enough to follow our lead—it will be an endless war with no winners, just lots of dead people.
Well, here I am already growing weary of my own words. Am I really writing this in 2015? Are there really American citizens who think it’s acceptable to demonize an entire religion based on the actions of a small number of people who claim to embrace that religion?
There was an outbreak of such un-American bigotry in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but at the time all the people we looked to as leaders lined up against the hatred and mean-spiritedness, because that’s what leaders do.
Thankfully, we the people can lead, too. We can do what we did more than 20 years ago, when hate-filled individuals tried to make some citizens of Billings feel afraid and unwelcome because of their race and religion. Not In Our Town, as the movement came to be known, has inspired millions around the world.
That spirit was in the air Saturday afternoon, when 150 or so people gathered in Pioneer Park for We Are All Sisters, a rally to show support for Billings Muslims who have met with hatred and harassment in recent weeks.
The gathering was organized by Carrie La Seur and Kate Walters, among others, after they learned of threats that had been made against Marriam Khadijah, who goes by the name Mary Baker, a Muslim woman who has lived in Billings for three years.
During the rally, Khadijah told me there is a Facebook page called Billings Islamic Center, Community Questions and Answers, which seeks to provide good, reliable information on Islam.
“We want to answer questions because there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said, which has to be one of the understatements of the year.
You can check out that page, for starters, and be prepared to challenge ignorance when you encounter it, condemn hatred when you see it. Have faith in the American people as a whole, no matter how extreme a minority of citizens might seem.
There is always a segment of the populace ready to trample on the Constitution in pursuit of the enemy of the moment, whether they be Muslims, communists, Catholics or immigrants.
We cannot and should not be tempted to want to silence people like Trump. We can only hope that hatred and dishonesty will not prevail. So there’s one more thing we can do—keep in mind another quote that grew trite from repetition, John Milton’s words about the contest between truth and falsehood: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
(And here’s a link to the We Are All Sisters Facebook page, where you can see the group photo taken on Saturday.)