Ground Zero mosque fight shows how little we've learned from U.S. history

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, August 20, 2010;

We grow older. History weighs on us. National history . . . and personal.

Not far from where I am writing today, in the Charlestown section of Boston -- site of the Battle of Bunker Hill and a memorial to the Revolutionary War patriots who died there -- sat a Roman Catholic convent and school run by Ursuline nuns.

In 1834, the convent and school were burned in an anti-Catholic riot by local Protestant men, drunk with alcohol and paranoia. For good measure, the men returned the next night, found the sacred altar tabernacle hidden under a rose bush and burned it, too.

Boston Mayor Theodore Lyman condemned the riots and sought to promote inter-religious dialogue, but public opinion blew in another direction. A jury acquitted the ringleaders, and for more than a decade the Massachusetts Legislature refused to pay indemnification.

No plaque commemorates the forgotten site.

Anti-Catholic nativism was rampant in the United States in the 19th century. Samuel Morse is fondly remembered as the inventor of the telegraph, but he also wrote in a popular book: "We are dupes of our hospitality. The evil of immigration brings to these shores illiterate Roman Catholics . . . the obedient instruments of their more knowing priestly leaders."

And as late as the 1960s, as a Catholic teenage immigrant dating a Southern Baptist girl in Phenix City, Ala., I found myself squirming in the pews of her small, crowded church. The preacher ridiculed the president then in the White House -- John F. Kennedy -- as a papist and "fish eater."

Newt Gingrich went to high school with me in Columbus, Ga. We share personal history, but I wonder what books inspire this self-styled intellectual today when he likens Muslims to Nazis and the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor. "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia," he said recently, as if we should govern ourselves by Saudi standards.

But Gingrich is not the only poor student of American history.

In the 1930s, as the real Nazis were murdering Jews, American Jewish and ecumenical leaders pressed President Franklin Roosevelt to lift immigration quotas or allow desperate German and Austrian Jews to come as refugees.

Nativist Southern and Western legislators were adamantly opposed. According to a 1938 Fortune magazine poll, 86 percent of Americans agreed that there should be no emergency quota increases to aid "German, Austrian and other refugees."

FDR remained strangely impassive and took no action. To be sure, unemployment was high and he needed the legislators behind his New Deal. But the State Department wasn't even filling the small, combined German and Austrian annual quotas of 26,000 immigrants. An official who described Jews in a report as "filthy, un-American and often dangerous" was put largely in charge of visas.

We all know what happened next. Yet one questions what history many Jewish leaders today are reading as they, too, oppose the so-called Ground Zero mosque.

There are more stories about other groups that are part of the paranoia and fear that periodically rear their ugly heads among us to demonize the newly arriving stranger, the "other" in our midst, this time Muslims. And what distinguishes each movement is that charismatic leaders incite the worst in us.

As for myself, I take a back seat to no one in toughness on terrorism or love of country.

My former office at the Wall Street Journal was across the street from the World Trade Center and was blown out on Sept. 11, 2001. My daughter was in the streets below and later, by some strange fate, was battered, bloodied and nearly killed in the London subway bombings. She was 20 yards from one of the explosions, in the next subway car.

I have known terrorists and terrorism up close in Spain, Northern Ireland, North Africa and Latin America as a journalist, and in Vietnam as a soldier. They are cruel cowards.

But what Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and too many of our current irresponsible leaders are doing may be just as detestable. A bomb happens in seconds and causes onetime death and destruction. These political leaders are destroying the long-term values and structure of our great nation. Can winning an election be worth that much?

We usually self-correct. Another mayor, New York's Michael Bloomberg, works to save us from ourselves. One hopes that Barack Obama will clearly break from his FDR mode of parsing and passing the buck, and bravely do the same.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

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