When leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested that we respond to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., by barring Muslims from entering the U.S., most Americans, even many in the Republican Party, were rightly appalled if not completely surprised. Trump’s preposterous and shocking pronouncements are, at this point, predictable. But what is truly disturbing is his boisterous refusal to be accountable to facts and the significant percentage of Republican voters who, despite this, declare him worthy of leading this nation. Yet again, we seemed doomed to repeat a scapegoating history we know all too well.
We've been down this road as a nation before, and as LGBT Americans we have been in the role of scapegoat, political wedge, or demeaned minority so we have common cause with our Muslim sisters and brothers generally and with LGBT Muslims specifically. So now it’s a new political moment and there is a new target. This never ends well, and yet we seem incapable of learning from our past missteps.
How many shameful chapters do we need? After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941, we interned Japanese-Americans in prison camps in 10 Western states. There is no decent person who does not now regard this history as despicable. We had no evidence of treason or sabotage. We acted out of hysteria and fear.
During the "red scare" of the 1940s and 1950s, based on the rantings and fearmongering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his efforts to root out "communists," Congress launched a full-on witch hunt and destroyed the lives of thousands of Americans. The entire fiasco was based on naked jingoism and rumor. There was no evidence of communist spies in positions of influence in government.
Less well known but equally shameful was our government’s treatment of LGBT immigrants and those with HIV. Up until the mid-1990s, the U.S. government prohibited "known homosexuals" from entering the country. For people who tested positive for HIV, the ban on entry to the U.S. endured until 2009. These bans made no one more safe. They were simply the consequence of blatant homophobia and bigotry.
Each of these chapters should be all the caution we need as we navigate the appropriate response to the attacks in Mali, Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino. Yet, for a sizable minority of our fellow Americans, these lessons have not taken hold. It's not enough to dismiss Trump as a buffoon, although, let me be clear, he is. Silence or complacency in the face of his dangerous and toxic rhetoric allows these fascistic leanings room to grow.
There is no doubt that there are dangers in our world. And those most at risk are fleeing conflict and violence and begging for safe harbor. It is at moments like this that we will see what we are made of as a nation. We will observe if we've learned from our history. This is a chance for the LGBT community in particular to be a leading voice for elevating the values we were long denied, have always demanded and are beginning to see realized: inclusion, justice, compassion, courage.
This is a moment in our nation’s history to write a new chapter rather than regret or retreat to our worst impulses. This is the time to be loud and fierce in defense of a nation whose greatest threat is from the enemies of our common humanity.