Their Terrorism, and Ours
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – William Faulkner
On February 5, 2015, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. Now, one might wonder why, in a country whose Constitution forbids the establishment of religion, we should even have a “National Prayer Breakfast”. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, while he was President, refused to issue presidential proclamations of thanksgiving to God, despite numerous requests from evangelical churches to do so.
But we’ll leave that for another essay. There was a “National Prayer Breakfast” on February 5, at which the President did in fact give a speech, the substance of which appears to have ignited a bit of controversy. This in and of itself is not surprising. There are Americans who despise the President to such a degree that they will scream bloody murder at virtually anything he says. If Obama started his address with “Good morning”, there are those who would wonder if “Good morning” is a traditional greeting among Muslims, and therefore proof that the President was born in Kenya, or some such nonsense. Actually, what Mr. Obama did at the Prayer Breakfast was compare atrocities committed by Islamic terrorists (most notably ISIS) with atrocities committed by Christians during the Inquisition and the Crusades. His point in doing so was to demonstrate that we shouldn’t tar all Muslims today with the actions of vicious terrorists, as Christians have committed some pretty heinous acts themselves (hence the references to the Inquisition and the Crusades) that they would not want all Christians being blamed for. Outrage ensued, with critics accusing the President of being un-Christian and un-American. No surprises there. One of the arguments that the President’s critics have used against him with regard to his comments is that the Crusades and the Inquisition both happened hundreds of years ago, as if this somehow disproves Mr. Obama’s point about not blaming all followers of a particular religion for crimes committed by their co-religionists, which it doesn’t.
But there’s something else to remember here. In the February 10 issue of the New York Times, there is a piece by Campbell Robertson entitled “History of Lynchings In the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names”. The article details the efforts of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery Alabama, and its founder, Bryan Stevenson, to memorialize places where African-Americans were lynched in this country during the period 1877-1950. The article relates some incidents from the great state of Texas: “Farther south (of Dallas) still is the community of Streetman, where 25-year old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922. And just beyond that is Kirkin, where three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow, and set afire in the spring of 1922”. In Paris, Texas, “thousands of people came in 1893 to see Henry Smith, a black teenager accused of murder, carried around town on a float, then tortured and burned to death on a scaffold. Until recently, some long-time residents still remembered when the two Arthur brothers were tied to a flag poll and set on fire at the City fair grounds in 1920”. The people who carried out these atrocities, and those who came to watch “for the fun of it”? Good, white, Christian Americans every one of them. And if white Christian clergy in the south objected to any of this, they sure as hell kept quiet about it. Is anything ISIS has done any worse than this? No, it is not. So for those who complain about the President’s comparison of ISIS to Christian Crusaders and Inquisitors because the Crusades and the Inquisition happened “so long ago”, I give you these examples of 20th Century American history. This in no way excuses ISIS’s barbarity nor does not change in any way our obligation to speak and act forcefully against these terrorists. But in doing so, we should not sanctimoniously blind ourselves to our own history of hate and cruelty. It is real, and it is not so distant as some of us would like to believe.