As we enter a new year and face an uncertain future it might serve Americans well to take a look at a very certain past.
During the administration of Woodrow Wilson the attorney general of the United States was A. Mitchell Palmer. As America became involved in World War I, Palmer did his best to support the President by attempting to silence all dissent. Palmer hired a young bureaucrat to compile an index of Americans with "suspicious political views." This was followed by Palmer's Raids, an unconstitutional round-up of political dissenters. For every communist spy exposed during Palmer's "Red Scare," hundreds of innocent people saw their lives and reputations destroyed. The great labor leader Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for making an anti-war speech! Ironically, it was Palmer's young bureaucrat who proved to be the biggest threat to America. He went on to terrorize innocent Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the next fifty years. His name was J. Edgar Hoover.
Like Palmer, the current attorney general, John Ashcroft, would like to silence dissent. At a recent senate judiciary committee hearing, Ashcroft had the audacity to suggest that those who do not support the Bush administration's tactics to fight terrorism are consequently aiding and abetting terrorists. In other words, there is only one acceptable way to think in America today and it is the way of John Ashcroft and George W. Bush. Like Palmer, Ashcroft will leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of the "enemy," unless, of course, the enemy is buying assault rifles at gun shows. While Ashcroft is willing to trample the first, fourth and sixth amendments to our Constitution, he is committed to uphold the self-serving and erroneous NRA interpretation of the second amendment.
Americans have every right to be angry and concerned about the carnage of September 11th. The victims deserve every bit of compassion and compensation that we as a people can make available. But Americans would be wrong to think that the tragedy of September 11th has no parallels in our own bloody history. Contrary to what politicians and the media keep insisting, September 11th, with a death-toll near 3,000, was not the "bloodiest day in American history." That sad distinction belongs to another September day in 1862 when 22, 726 Americans were killed or wounded in a few gruesome hours along Antietam Creek in Maryland. Ten months later on the previously peaceful farmlands of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania more than 50,000 Americans would be killed or wounded in less than three days .
Of course, the greatest atrocity in American history was the near total extermination of Native American tribes. Americans today might find it hard to believe that literally millions of Indians were systematically slaughtered by white people on this continent, sometimes by ignorance, often by massacre, but also by devious government tricks such as the distribution of blankets exposed to smallpox.
But perhaps these are not fair comparisons; after all, Antietam and Gettysburg were battles in a real war. And the great crime against Native Americans was, for the most part, an act of slow methodical genocide perpetrated by popular figures whom we still regard as national heroes.
Perhaps the best comparison to September 11th would be the horrendous acts of terrorism committed by Americans against Americans in the 20th century which resulted in at least 4,000 deaths. That is how many Americans of African descent were lynched by Americans of European descent between 1900 and 1960. Like bin Laden and the Taliban these terrorists justified their hatred through an extremist interpretation of religious dogma. There was a reason why the Ku Klux Klan used a burning cross as their symbol of righteousness.
We mourn those who lost their lives to Islamic extremists on September 11th. We try to make things better for their surviving family members. But who among us remembers the 4,000 Americans lynched by Christian extremists here in the United States during the 20th century? How many of their family members were ever compensated? It's easy to see the sins in others when we ignore our own.
And while we sing the praises of men like Mayor Giuliani and President Bush, who were, after all, elected to lead us through unexpected events, could we also remember those who were told to be silent but spoke up anyway? Can we teach our children to sing the praises of genuinely great Americans like Ida B. Wells, the courageous black woman who dedicated her life to exposing the shame of lynch law in America? The woman who dared to appear at the scene of the crime and condemn the terrorists who were robbing innocent Americans of life, liberty and happiness and yet was turned away time and again by the congressmen of the United States when she pleaded with them to pass anti-lynching legislation?
In the steady march of history we are not alone. Our ancestors knew of death and destruction, too. But they also knew of courage. When terrorists attacked our country on September 11, 2001, we were told that it was an attack on liberty. So why are we suddenly willing to sit back and allow that liberty to be eroded by an overzealous attorney general and by politicians and journalists who condemn dissent? Not everyone can go along with the crowd. As Ida Wells would have told us, the crowd is often wrong.