An open letter to American Muslims:
In April 1944, a Cpl. Rupert Trimmingham wrote the editor of Yank, a U.S. Army magazine, about what happened when he and eight fellow soldiers, traveling by train, had an overnight layover in a small Louisiana town. They went to get coffee, but no restaurant would serve African-American soldiers except the one at the depot. And it required that they go into the kitchen.
“But that’s not all,” wrote Trimmingham. That morning at 11:30, “about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact, had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on, and I could not help but ask myself these questions: Are these men sworn enemies of this country? … Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this country? Then why are they treated better than we are? Why are we pushed around like cattle? … Why does the Government allow such things to go on?”
I invoke Trimmingham’s letter because it embodies a dilemma with which I suspect you are too familiar: the question of how – and whether – to love a country that often fails to love you back.
That quandary is thrown into sharp focus by last week’s terror attack in Belgium and the wearisomely predictable response from the political right. On the one hand, there’s Ted Cruz arguing for an increased police presence to “patrol and secure” your neighborhoods. On the other hand, there’s Donald Trump, reiterating his call to close America’s borders to Muslims.
These are, of course, manifestly stupid ideas. How will we define a “Muslim neighborhood”? Will a Christian living there need a pass to come and go freely? How does Trump propose to identify Muslims at the border? Will religions have to issue ID cards?
Besides which: There’s the Constitution.
Not to mention that, every two weeks or so, it seems some disaffected white guy shoots up a movie theater, schoolyard or church, yet no one proposes to lock down white neighborhoods or close American borders to white men because of it.
Indeed, we are told such carnage is the price of “freedom.” But let some thug calling himself Muslim commit mass murder on the far side of the planet and suddenly people want Marines guarding every falafel stand in New York.
It has to hurt and cannot help but make the question more pointed: Why should a Muslim love America?
Trying to find a way and a reason to do so must sometimes feel foolish and naive. Why serve a country that often hates you? Why support a country that sometimes fails you? Why tell your children to believe in a country like that?
So I write this letter for four reasons:
The first is to say that some of us have been there. Some of us still are.
The second is to remind you that Cruz and Trump do not represent the predominant opinion – only the loudest.
The third is to say, on behalf of the rest of us: I’m sorry for what you’re dealing with.
The fourth is to point out that there is a difference between America and Americans.
“America” is simple. It’s “liberty and justice for all.” It’s freedom. It’s an ideal.
“Americans” are the people charged with living up to that ideal. And very often, they fail to do so. Because of expedience. Because of bigotry. Because of cowardice. Truth to tell, sometimes, they don’t even try.
But the failure of the people is not the failure of the ideal. This is a truth some of us hold to when our country disappoints and I commend it to you. America belongs to all of us. And America is worth believing in.
Even when Americans let you down.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.