Hours after the horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported.”
His remarks are not only offensive; they are unconstitutional. And they suggest a hatefulness that runs counter to the America many of us risked our lives defending.
I served alongside Muslims and Jews and Christians and nonreligious men and women. We shared a common belief in the greatness of a country that cherishes diversity, protects religious freedom, and champions equality and openness. That’s the country we were honored to serve, and that others were eager to help.
In faraway places around the globe I saw firsthand the willingness of allies to serve alongside us because we were Americans—because that title carries with it an implication not just of strength, but of ideals they desire for their own countries. Arabs, Kurds, Afghans, and countless others were proud to call themselves our friends.
Toxic rhetoric like Gingrich’s is therefore dangerous and strategically damaging. It feeds into the Islamic State narrative that the West is at war with Muslims. It bolsters the terrorists’ own propaganda. It alienates the very allies we need most in fighting extremists.
Furthermore, we have seen what happens when fear and intolerance take hold and an entire group of people is ostracized. We must internalize the hard lessons of the past, when we have, in the name of security, persecuted our own citizens. This country has experienced such dark episodes, from the Salem Witch Trials to the internment of the Japanese-Americans during the Second World War to the demagoguery of the McCarthy era.
The parallels to McCarthyism are unnerving. The rhetoric feeds a perilous prejudice and reflects a paranoia overriding reason.
It took an indignant patriot, Joseph Welch, the chief counsel for the U.S. Army, to finally stand up to Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, after a young attorney in Mr. Welch’s firm was wrongfully accused of being a Communist. He uttered his famous line, “Senator, you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
I hope there are such brave Americans today, ones who will remind our political leaders that we have a moral obligation to protect a just society. Such courage is most critical when we are threatened and challenged. At such times we must cling to our values and our honor, not abandon them.
As we respond as a nation to tragedies like the one in Nice, we must show strength. We must uphold the ideal at the heart of our unique American experiment. Now is the time to show the world we are a country that embodies inclusiveness, equality, and justice for all.
Scott Cooper is a retired Marine and the National Security Outreach Director at Human Rights First.