In November 2008, within hours of Barack Obama becoming president-elect of the United States, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground by three white men, two of whom later admitted to torching the church to protest a Black American's election to the highest office in the land.
That came as no surprise to me.
Indeed, that was just the beginning.
America's reaction to the elevation of an African-American, first as candidate, then as the 44th president of the United States, revealed to me major schisms in our body politic that had been festering for generations just below the surface of carefully manicured public spaces.
Festering, indeed, since the South submitted to the North at Appomattox on April 9, 1865; festering since the Klan and Jim Crow; festering since Republican strategist Lee Atwater said in 1981, "You start out in 1954 by saying, (racial slur). By 1968 you can’t say (racial slur) —that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff..."
In spite of all that, despite threats and obstacles, Obama, just six months after election, while delivering a commencement address at Notre Dame appealed to Americans to approach their differences civilly: “How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right," he asked, "without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”
"Open hearts," he suggested. "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."
That was and is never going to happen, as I am sure even he knew. It is an illusion seductive in its appeal, meaningless and irrelevant to those Americans for whom issues of race and white supremacy are existential issues.
I agree that ideally America should be a place where people who disagree with each other can come together to debate and expect to be treated with respect, in Public Squares clearly defined by “wall[s] of separation between church and state.” as defined by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
Indeed, I occasionally find that possibility seductive, but when one side insists on denying the humanity of the Other, all bets are off.
Today, all bets are off because there are Americans who have abandoned the principle that all people are created equal with certain unalienable Rights including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Instead, the wall of separation itself is under siege.
It remains under siege because too many people won't aggressively resist the attackers, delusionally believing that that it is possible to have affirming relationships with Americans who deny our democratic values and who support the imposition of an authoritarian government on hallowed land.
I am recognizing more fully each day that fruitful exchanges with people who want to marginalize me or others like me, who frequently invite us to leave this country because of our ethnicity, faith, or opinions, are diminishing, and with them a diminished hope for the fulfillment of the Promise of America.
Be alert: Listening to so-called voices of political civility is dangerous, rendering vulnerable those who are being targeted because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity by suggesting that some sort of rapprochement or detente between groups is possible.
I'm not interested in people who say there are two sides, who believe that listening to the resentments, grievances and fears of white supremacists will somehow ease their desire to render the Other as second-class citizens.
In our lifetime no one asked or interviewed Hitler on why he thought the Holocaust might be a good idea; in 1950 no one asked to sit down with Mao to ask why he was invading Tibet; no one asked Pol Pot why killing of 25% of Cambodia's population was a worthy cause; no one asked Osama bin Laden to justify 9/11.
No one asked those questions because there were not two sides to those stories. There was a side of justice vs. a side of injustice.
There weren't good people of both sides in Charlottesville, and today no one should be asking to find common ground with Donald Trump or with his followers who breached the capital on Jan. 6, 2021; with those who threaten the suspension of the Constitution; with those who call for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to be executed because he disagreed with the president.
It's not my job to make people feel better. I, as an Arab-American-Muslim, want America to confront its contradictions, confront the contradictions between your comfort and security, confront the costs such comforts extract from those being marginalized, demonized and disenfranchised.
Daily we read about Ukraine and Russia.
Fewer read of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. Even fewer read of the persecution of Rohingya and Uyghur peoples. Fewer read that over the past decade, more than 2 million refugees and asylum seekers have attempted to cross the Mediterranean, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and Afghanistan. Of those numbers over 28,000 are missing, presumed to have died during the crossing.
Those sojourners are our brothers and sisters.
Today, many read of the crisis of America's southern border. Not enough read of the decades and abuse American colonialism and exploitation inflicted on those peoples that today compels them, as homeless sojourners, to embark on desperate journeys with their families in search of sanctuary and safety.
Those sojourners are our brothers and sisters.
I don't want to hear two sides from the press on an issue when only one side is fact and justice based. I want rigorous fact-checking and discernment. I want fairness. I want justice. Not every opinion is worthy of a platform, whether it has followers or not.
“In this country, American means white," Toni Morrison told the Guardian in 1992. "Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at email@example.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Azzi: I'm not making peace with those who deny my humanity