After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people were horrified to see the nation’s naval forces decimated. The American people were legitimately angered by the nature of the sneak attack. War with Japan was justified and necessary in response to that attack, but our nation also acted shamefully. People of Japanese ancestry – loyal Americans – were herded into concentration camps because of fear that they would act as enemy agents. Racist imagery of Japanese people filled the pop culture, and even comic books got into the action with some horribly grotesque racist caricatures.
Given this history, it should not be a surprise that after the war crimes perpetrated by radical Muslim terrorists on September 11, 2001, there was legitimate fear that all Muslims (or even non-Muslim Arabs) would be targeted and discriminated against. Was Ilhan Omar wrong to point out this fear? No, she was not. One could argue that her concerns were overblown, and I agree that her rhetoric has exaggerated the threat. But it had only been sixty years since the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. That is a very short amount of time, historically speaking.
We need to be fair here: George W. Bush went out of his way to make clear that this was not a religious war and that he was not blaming all Muslims for the actions of radical terrorists and war criminals. Omar has been too harsh in her assessment of how Muslims were treated after 9/11, and considering that she was accepted as a refugee fleeing civil war in Somalia, she could have some more gratitude to the nation that accepted her and her family. This nation also spilled her own soldiers’ blood to feed starving Somalis in the 1990’s.
But Omar’s lack of perspective does not render her concerns meaningless. We need to constantly be on guard, and realize that when we are threatened the worst of us often comes out.