By Michael A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
When Franklin Roosevelt told the nation that the only thing we had to fear is fear itself, he didn’t mean it literally. The year was 1933, and our still largely rural nation, underdeveloped and out of work with nothing like a safety net for those falling through the cracks, was in the early days of a Great Depression that would linger the rest of the decade.
There was plenty to worry about, and to be scared of, too. Roosevelt knew that full well. All signs pointed toward additional pain and disruption.
But FDR knew that allowing ourselves to give in to that fear would only make worse what was already dire. He knew that beneath the worry was an American capacity for sacrifice and endurance, resources that would be in heavy demand in the years to come.
I thought of those oft-repeated words Tuesday afternoon when I read about Sen. Ted Cruz’s statement in response to the terrorist attacks in Belgium, which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for. It’s clear that one of the contenders to become our next president has missed the lessons provided by our longest-serving one.
Cruz called on “law enforcement” to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
American neighborhoods, that is.
Bombs go off in Belgium, taking a dreadful toll, and a man who would be president responds by calling for police to begin patrolling certain American streets to ensure that Muslims who live nearby are not radicalized.
How exactly? Should we issue checkpoint visas? Maybe ask for loyalty oaths? Maybe put snitches in as baristas at the local coffee shops, with keen ears and sharp eyes – and little black books to record their impressions?
Shall we assume that Americans who follow Islam must be monitored by the state? We have done that before, you know. We shipped off Japanese-Americans to camps during World War II. And in Eastern Europe, where Jews had for centuries lived in “neighborhoods,” governments eager to monitor them found it useful to issue special badges to know who was who and where they belonged.
I’m not suggesting that Cruz is arguing to do either of those things. But his comments take us closer to a kind of security state drawn up along the lines of suspect groups than any of the other bellicose proposals by his fellow contenders. Even Donald Trump hasn’t gone that far, and he’s already drawn fire for saying that all Muslim refugees or immigrants should be banned from entering the country.
Cruz’s proposal is more alarming still. He makes no distinction between citizen or non-citizen. He draws the line about whom to monitor along religious lines, which should be anathema to anyone who has spent as much time shouting about religious liberty as Cruz has.
But beyond the constitutional problems, there is a question of courage. Cruz has allowed himself to be governed by fear. It’s unseemly, unfitting and, like Hamlet’s conscience, would make cowards of us all.
The path forward in the face of such brutal suicidal terrorist attacks was never going to be easy. And it’s always going to be scary. But in fighting the forces that want to kill us, we must cling more strongly still to the values that make our civilization worth fighting for.
One of those values is that we don’t patrol neighborhoods based on the fact that lots of people who belong to one religion or another live there.
More profoundly, we don’t use police to combat ideology, or “radicalization.” We use ideas to fight ideas – and the government, when it has a role at all, is to make sure that ideas can be exchanged freely. The most powerful idea we have is freedom. We start cutting back on that and we won’t have enough police to fight radicalization.
And finally, we can win this war by following Roosevelt’s admonition. In that 1933 speech, Roosevelt said:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 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.”
He said such times have always provided a leader who asks the people for strength and resolve. He said he was one such leader called to help at a difficult time.
Cruz has positioned himself to be another such person, but his comments Tuesday were not those of a leader. Nor were they courageous.
Michael A. Lindenberger is a member of The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.