This post originally appeared in The Tennessean on June 22nd, 2012.
At the height of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That sentence in its entirety read, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This past year it seems the “Great Recession” has generated nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror among some of our fellow Tennesseans.
Unreasoning fear must have been the driving force in the legislature, where instead of focusing on the economic hardships facing Tennesseans, the leadership chose instead to spend time on such issues as “don’t say gay”, “gateway sexual activity”, “guns in parking lots”, “the Vanderbilt Bill”, and “the Monkey Bill”. While I care not one iota about the New York Times or the late night talk show hosts poking fun at Tennessee, it is of concern that the legislature would devote time and effort to such subjects while the unemployment rate continues tragically high and the foundation of our economic prosperity, our education system, is under stress.
Some organizations also seem intent on “retreating” rather than “advancing”. Certainly Governor Bill Haslam’s conservative credentials are unimpeachable and his devotion to our nation is unquestioned. But last week he was accused, by an organization calling itself the 8th District Tea Party Coalition, along with anti-Muslim activists, of hiring an individual who works with “financial jihadists” and those who “seek to embed Sharia law into America’s financial system” to head the state’s international section in the Economic and Community Development department.
The focus of this particular “unreasoning fear” is one Samar Ali, who is from that recognized center of Islamic extremism, Waverly, Tennessee. She has an impressive resume; honor graduate from Vanderbilt, where she was also student body president; clerk for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge; senior lawyer in a high-powered international law firm; White House Fellow. Now she has taken a hefty pay cut (my guess) to come back and serve her fellow Tennesseans. As Haslam’s spokesman said, “She’s as Tennessee as they come, we’re glad she’s back in Tennessee.” So am I.
This hubbub occurred just as I traveled to another Islamic hotbed, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to commission a new Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve, a young man named Askan Bayatapour. Bayatapour’s mother and father fled from persecution in Iran in the 70s, settling in Mobile, Alabama, where Askan was born. Graduating from high school at the height of the Iraq war, Askan enlisted in the Navy, eventually serving in Fallujah, where Marines and sailors earned yet another battle star for the intense combat operations that marked a turning point in that conflict. Released from active duty, he entered the University of Alabama and completed his studies. Desiring to continue serving his country, he then sought and received a commission in the Navy.
When giving the oath of office, I always look into the eyes of the new officer as I ask, “Do you solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic” and end with “so help you God”. As I expected, when I looked into Ensign Bayatapour’s eyes, I did not see fear or terror, but instead a determination to live up to the oath he was taking regardless of whether he was Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or none of the above.
It is easy in these days of economic hardship and uncertainty to take council of our fears, to find someone or something on which to focus our anger, and to blame those unlike ourselves for our ills. In the past, people who seemed very alien upon arriving in this country, Irish Catholics, Swedish Protestants, Spanish Basques, Chinese Buddhists, and many other nationalities, enriched this unique hope of the world we call America. We cannot give in to unreasoning fear; we cannot lose the essence of America, based not on creed, color, culture, religion, or social status, but instead on the value of the individual and his or her love of freedom.