Happy Thanksgiving!



Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a note to thank you for your continued readership and to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Today we will be busy cooking and having friends over.

Back tomorrow,


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The Unfolding of Miscalculations: Syria 2015

russian jet in flames

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The tensions fuel by the incredibly complex and dangerous war in Syria just when up, as I like to say the “pucker factor” is very high, in fact it is getting close to stage ten. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations” and it seems that right now there are whole a lot of miscalculations going on.

Yesterday a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was blasted out of the sky by a Turkish F-16. Reports conflict, Turkey say that the Russian aircraft had violated its airspace multiple times and had been given multiple warnings before the shoot down. The Russians claim that the aircraft was on the Syrian side of the border and that the attack was an unprovoked violation, and Russian President Putin called it a “stab in the back.” Russia is accusing Turkey of backing DAESH, while Russia’s forces, which are supposedly there to fight DAESH are spending more time attacking Syrian President Assad’s non-DAESH Syrian opposition, including Turkoman Syrians fighting the Assad regime in the area where the jet was shot down. Some think that it might be payback for the Russians bombing the faction supported by the Turks.

Admittedly, Turkey has a right to self-defense and the Russians are operating in Syria without any kind of international mandate. That being said, the Russians are there at the behest of the Assad government, which even if we don’t like it is still the legal government of Syria, a long term ally and client of Russia, going back to the old Soviet days.

However, the feud between Russia and Turkey goes back hundreds of years. They hate each other, and this hatred goes back to the days of the Tsars and the Ottomans. The hatred is generations old, and is cultural, religious and political. Maybe that is why we in the west do not understand it, but I digress… 

The fact is that the actions of both nations, as well as most other nations in the West including the United States have helped to stoke the fire of the Syrian war, which is threatening to escalate into a regional conflict. I am not going to go into all the details of what has brought us to this point, because they are too many to cover. Some of course are saying that it could lead to a World War, but I do think that cooler heads will prevail. Of course I could be wrong, as Tuchman wrote, “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”

It is now time for President Obama to step up to the plate, and not rattle sabers, but to help pull everyone back from the brink. He needs to work with Russia’s President Putin to deescalate the crisis. Since everyone involved has a stake in what happens it Syria it cannot be ignored. The nations involved need to sit down and come up with a way to defeat DAESH and bring peace to Syria and Iraq. Of course this is easier said than done, especially since bullets are flying, blood is flowing, and tensions rising. The fallibility of human beings has been demonstrated time and time again in this war, and as Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death, and live ammunition.”

In 1962 President Kennedy faced the real possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had just read Tuchman’s The Guns of August which had just been published. He was shocked by the words of German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who when asked how World War One started replied “Ah, if only one knew.” Kennedy asked General Curtis LeMay what would happen if the Soviets did not back down, and the officer replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy could not go down that road, he referred to the book when he remarked, “If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, “How did it all happen?” and to receive the incredible reply: “Ah, if only one knew.”

The downing of this Russian jet shows just how easily things can spin out of control. It is time for calmer heads to prevail and walk this back before things get really out of hand.


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Filed under History, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events

Your Fear Will Destroy You

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert as Belgium’s government continued its lockdown of Brussels. As this went on the French continued their search for DAESH terrorists who took part in the Paris attacks. Over a week ago the U.S. Government issued an order for military and other government agents to not travel to Paris.

As all of this is going on I am thinking about an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine entitled, Paradise Lost that deals with suspected Dominion shape shifters infiltrating Earth that conducted a terror attack in Antwerp. The fact that the episode premiered in 1996 only underscores the fact that human nature is very consistent. We cannot forget the many times in history where peoples and nations have sacrificed essential liberty for the illusion of security.

In the episode Starfleet command declares martial law on Earth, and everyone is a potential terror suspect. Troops were deployed; citizens were subject to random blood tests to determine if they were really human, and false flag operations were conducted to instill even more fear, and for a time the plan worked, people submitted to the measures because of fear.

However, Captain Sisko, of Deep Space Nine who was called back to Earth to head security operations, discovers the plot. In a talk with the commander of Starfleet Captain Sisko asks why he has been brought back to Earth, the conversation is interesting in light of recent events:

SISKO: Then why did you bring me here?

LEYTON: Because I needed someone who knew how to fight shape-shifters, and that’s you. And I suppose on some level I hoped that when you saw what we were accomplishing, you’d join us. You’ve always had a strong sense of duty.

SISKO: My duty is to protect the Federation. 

LEYTON: That’s what we’re trying to do. 

SISKO: What you’re trying to do is to seize control of Earth and place it under military rule.

LEYTON: If that’s what it takes to stop the Dominion. 

SISKO: So you’re willing to destroy paradise in order to save it.

In light of the threat posed by DAESH, with real, suspected and imagined terrorist attacks in Europe, in the Middle East, and potentially in the United States, the conversation is quite relevant.

As the episode unfolds a shape shifter impersonating Chief O’Brien confronts Captain Sisko:

Changeling: Let me ask you a question. How many Changelings do you think are here on Earth right at this moment?

Captain Sisko: I’m not going to play any guessing games with you.

Changeling: Ah. What if I were to tell you that there are only four on this entire planet? Huh? Not counting Constable Odo, of course. Think of it – just four of us. And look at the havoc we’ve wrought.

Captain Sisko: How do I know you’re telling me the truth? 

Changeling: Four is more than enough. We’re smarter than solids. We’re better than you. And most importantly, we do not fear you the way you fear us. In the end, it’s your fear that will destroy you.

The fact is that the numbers of DAESH terrorists are extremely small, and yes they are capable of doing a lot of damage. But at the same time what are we willing to sacrifice to ensure our security? It seems that we are becoming ever more willing to sacrifice liberty in the name of security and to cast suspicion, and on an entire religion, including loyal citizens due to the actions of some. If that happens, DAESH wins, no matter how secure we think we are; but do not get me wrong, security is important, but sacrificing liberty in the name of security has seldom been effective, and once surrendered, liberty seldom returns.

I think the very last line of the spoken by the changeling is the most important. In the end, it is our fear that will destroy us.


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Filed under Political Commentary, star trek, national security, laws and legislation, News and current events, civil rights, terrorism

The Belief in a Devil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. I noticed a lot of it comments of a number of people on my Facebook page following the DAESH attack on Paris and their threats against the United States. The bulk of it consisted of meme and statements which demonize Moslems, immigrants, and American liberals. Right now, Moslems, Arabs, immigrants, liberals and homosexuals are the devil to many people. Facebook and other social media platforms allows us to see into the hearts of people that we never would have thought capable of such beliefs. That my friends is the scary part.

Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” History shows us how demagogues can, and do find a convenient devil and then stir the seeds of fear in the hearts of their followers. The tipping point comes when the people that the demagogues demonize become less than human in the eyes of the population.

Sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and we are just one crisis from pogroms, ethnic and religious cleansing, concentration camps and genocide. Just one attack on the United States by DAESH and the politicians, pundits and preachers, especially of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, will decide that their “devils” must be exterminated.

When they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In a Star Trek the Next Generation episode, one called The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lt Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. An Enterprise crewman has his career destroyed because his paternal grandfather was Romulan. As the prosecutor damns him for that and accuses him of being part of a plot that never existed, Picard makes the comment, “Have we become so… fearful, have we become so cowardly… that we must extinguish a man? Because he carries the blood of a current enemy?”

During the investigation, Picard is approached by his security officer Lt. Worf, who wholeheartedly supported the investigation. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.” 

Picard pauses and then notes:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

As the investigation continued, Worf too was accused of being a traitor, because of his Klingon ancestry. When the prosecutor was send home in disgrace, Worf returns to Captain Picard. The conversation is enlightening.

“Am I bothering you, Captain?”
“No, please Mr. Worf, come in.”
“It is over. Admiral Henry has called an end to any more hearings on this matter.”
“That’s good.”
“Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise.”
“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. And then, before you can blink an eye, suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”
“I believed her. I-I HELPED her! I did not see what she was.”
“Mr. Worf, villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.”
“I think, after yesterday, people will not be so ready to trust her.”
“Maybe. But she or someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish–spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay.”

As I look at the memes and and statements that I see on social media. As I listen to politicians and media pundits sow more suspicion, and incite fear in the people, and as I hear supposedly Christian preachers, demonize people for nothing more than their religious and ethic heritage, I wonder what we have become. To claim Picard’s words for myself I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either.


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Filed under national security, Political Commentary, star trek

Remembering JFK


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas on a sunny November afternoon fifty-two years ago.  The images of the event and its aftermath in photos and film still haunt us and find themselves etched in our individual and collective memory. The two shots that killed the President were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald according to the Warren Commission and subsequent inquiries although there are a host of conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. My purpose is not to prove or disprove the official version or any alternative explanation. I personally believe that Oswald was the lone gunman, but I have to wonder if there were others involved in the plot and at times if there was a second shooter.

However today my purpose is to remember Kennedy’s assassination, a horrible event in the life of our nation and to reflect on how easily something similar could happen again.

Kennedy was not the first President killed by an assassin. Four Presidents of the United States have died by the hand of assassins. The first was Abraham Lincoln killed by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday 1865.  That assassination carried out by a Southern sympathizer not even a week after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox stunned the nation and most likely altered the course of events after the war.

The second was the assassination of James A Garfield who was shot on July 2nd 1881 by Charles Guiteau.  Guiteau was a disgruntled supporter who claimed that he had been commanded by God to kill a the President who he believed to be ungrateful for his support. I find it interesting that one of our four Presidential assassins was motivated by what he believed God to be saying. During his trial he said that some important Europeans told him to do it. Garfield died on September 19th probably due to the incompetence of his doctors.  Guiteau died of a broken neck, expertly administered by a hangman after dancing to the gallows waving to the assembled crowd.

The third U.S. President to die at the hands of an assassin was President William McKinley who was shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 5th 1901. McKinley died on September 14th once again because of not so great medical care.

In all over 20 attempts have been made on incumbent or former Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was wounded by an attempted assassin after his Presidency and John Hinckley Junior nearly killed President Ronald Reagan on March 30th 1981.  Gerald Ford had two close brushes with female assassins within 2 weeks of each other in September 1975. More recent attempts have been made on George H.W Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. There have been numerous threats on the life of President Obama, and even attacks on the White House in 2013.

However, Kennedy’s assassination tends to be the most talked about and studied. I believe that his assassination left a scar on the country that really hasn’t healed. I can remember the effect that his assassination as well as the subsequent killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy had on my parents in the following years.  My mother recounted how she felt when she heard the news of Kennedy’s death on Armed Forces Radio while we were stationed in the Philippines.  It was an event that shattered the faith and idealism of many Americans.

I remember the times around the anniversary of his assassination we would watch television shows about it and the movie PT-109. While I do not have direct memories of President Kennedy’s assassination I do remember those of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy as well as the subsequent attempts on President Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.

John F Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents. I know that he was a deeply flawed man and I do not gloss over his failings either as a man or some of his decisions while President. He was certainly not perfect but I still I admire him.  I think one reason I admire him was his his ability to enunciate ideas that helped shape my more moderately liberal progressive pragmatism. One thing that he said is something that motivates me daily in our divided nation.

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

PC 101

Kennedy volunteered to serve in combat on PT Boats despite having chronic lower back problems that kept him out of the Army and necessitated a waiver to enter the Navy. His actions in saving his crew after his PT-109 was sunk were nothing short of heroic and his crew knew it. After he his crew was rescued Kennedy elected to remain in action and commanded PT-59 in combat rescuing Marines on Choisuel Island. Kennedy’s citation for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal read:

“For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

After his rescue Kennedy returned to action commanding PT-59 which though low on fuel was part of a two boat mission to evacuate Marines commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Krulak from Choiseul. He remained in action conduction patrols and engaging Japanese forces until he was ordered to relinquish command for medical reasons on November 18th 1943 and evacuated to the United States.  He was mentally and physically exhausted from his ordeal and had lost over 25 pounds between the sinking of PT-109 and his return to the United States.

Kennedy’s speeches still inspire me. As a child a had a copy of his book Profiles in Courage. I grew up with his promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the creation of the Peace Corps, his backing of Special Forces, his love of the Navy, the great “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, his support of the Civil Rights movement and and his defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis all inspire me.  His inauguration speech where he said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” was and still is a lot of my motivation for serving my country as a Naval Officer.  When I was young John F Kennedy symbolized the hope of a country. I wonder so often what things might be like had he lived.

I could be critical and point out all of John Kennedy’s flaws and contradictions. But then too easy to do, People make a living doing that. But in doing so they often ignore the fact that Kennedy was a hero, not a perfect man but a hero.

I wish a quarter of our current elected officials served their country in combat as Kennedy did and understood real danger and heroism. Instead with very few exceptions we have elected men as much or even more flawed and contradictory than John F Kennedy with none of his personal courage to every level of office in the country, mostly because they have the money to win.

Kennedy’s wartime service always earned my respect. I tremble when I think that someone would have such a deep hatred of him or for that matter any other President that they would kill or attempt to kill them. That kind of hatred goes beyond me whether it be the hatred and smallness of John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau or Leon Czolgosz.

Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was a small and pathetic man who needed to be a revolutionary.  Oswald needed to be important failing everything else he killed the President. Unfortunately there are people like Oswald on all sides of the political, ideological and religious spectrum who will gladly trade the life of a President or any other public figure for their moment in the spotlight and need to demonstrate their importance to the world.

I fear for our country because of the intense hatred that has become part and parcel of our political landscape. The hatred toward directed toward President Obama and the many threats made against his life and person are chilling. As I looked for images for this article I found pictures of Kennedy’s body after the assassination and they shook me. I have seen far too much in the way of violent and senseless death. Thus I do pray for the safety of President Obama as well as all of our leaders and for God to protect us from ourselves and those so possessed by hatred and their own self-righteousness that they would commit such an abominable act.

But I don’t believe that we should be governed by fear and to embrace the future. Kennedy said:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

Likewise I still believe in the call to action spoken by Kennedy:

“Now the trumpet summons us again. Not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” 

I also believe in an era where the country seems to be withdrawing from engagement with an ever more globalized, interconnected yet dangerous world that his call to “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

While I do so I remember the President whose life was cut short by the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald and pray that such an event will never happen again and even more importantly that American political leaders would begin to dream again, visions of hope for the country and world and instead of only seeing limitations, ask that one question in terms of ideas of hope and progress: “Why not?” As Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”


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The Aftermath of the Next Attack


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For the past week I have been writing about the attack by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or DAESH on Paris and topics related to the war against DAESH, as well as civil liberties. DAESH has promised that they will attack again, and I have no doubt that they will succeed in conducting a high profile attack, or series of attacks in the United States that cause massive numbers of casualties.

I have mentioned in older articles that when that happens that the reaction of politicians, pundits, preachers and the public will be draconian. We have not yet had an attack and already the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump is suggesting enrolling Moslems in a database, closing Mosques, and making them wear badges that identify them as Moslems. The mayor of Roanoke Virginia suggested Mislems be rounded up and incarcerated in internment camps. Can anyone spell Third Reich? 

But when an attack occurs civil liberties, and not just for Moslems will disappear faster than I can drink a liter of beer. If you think that the Patriot Act was over the top, the next legislation will be the Patriot Act on steroids, and it will not just happen in the United States, but Europe as well. Government leaders and officials will use their new powers to trample all dissent, in the name of patriotism. Henry Steele Commager said Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” This, my friends is the reality that we live in and the danger that we face.

It will be open season on anyone who even looks slightly Middle Eastern. People who are Middle Eastern, or those mistaken for them will be assaulted on the streets; Mosques, schools, and Arab-American businesses will be attacked. Arab Americans, be they Moslem or Christian whose families have lived in this country for a hundred years or more, people who have assimilated and are as American as anyone else will be treated as suspected criminals and terrorists. 

These kind of things have happened recently, and there are enough minimally trained, xenophobic half-wits running around with assault rifles to do a lot of killing. The sad thing is that most of these idiot hate-filled xenophobia can’t tell the difference between an Arab of any kind from a Sikh, an Indian, or even a Mexican. But when something happens there will be an American version of Kristallnacht and the xenophobia will have the support of many of these politicians, pundits and preachers.

The innocent will be swept up with the guilty. There are already politicians suggesting that all Moslems be sent to camps, so just imagine what will happen after the next attack. I do not think that I am overstating the fever and the fear that is sweeping the United States and Europe right now.

The ironic thing is that this is exactly what DAESH wants to happen and it plays right into their hands. God help us all.


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Filed under civil rights, News and current events, Political Commentary, terrorism

Paris & the Return of the Know Nothings


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the wake of the recent DAESH terror attacks there has been a resurgence in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and Western Europe targeting the Syrians fleeing the terror of DAESH, or as they call themselves the Islamic State. The parties that capitalize on this in both areas have long track records and usually mask their hatred of people who are not like them, in terms of security. The arguments are nothing new, they have been used against almost every immigrant group that has ever come to the shores of Europe or America.

If you have read my last few posts, you know that I do believe that we are in a war against an intractable foe that must be defeated. At the same time I believe that we cannot allow ourselves to forget the best of our heritage and our highest ideals in doing so. Unfortunately, it seems that we are about to make things worse by re-victimizing the victims, and emboldening the claim of DAESH to be the return of the Caliphate.

Many of the prominent candidates for the Republican nomination for President, numerous representatives, over half of the nation’s governors have announced their opposition to any immigration of Syrians to this country, their language often mirroring that of previous anti-immigrant groups. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and others have tapped into the vast reservoir of nativism that has always been a part of the American body-politic. These politicians, as well as the pundits and preachers who fan the flames of fear are gaining traction. One cannot go to Facebook, or other social media sites and not see some of the vilest memes and comments be the people who stirred up by them make some most ill-informed comments imaginable, and a lot of these people are the descendants of immigrants who were subject to the very kind of discrimination, and even race hatred that they spew at current immigrants, especially Syrians and others from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

As I said, such attitudes and movements are nothing new. Anti-immigrant movements in the United States go back to our earliest days, ever since the first Irish Catholics showed up in the northeast in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Met with scorn and treated as criminals the Irish Catholics had to work hard to gain any kind of acceptance in Protestant America. But immigrants continued to come, seeking the freedom promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Many White American Protestants viewed Irish, German and other European immigrants to the Unites States in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s as interlopers who were attempting to take over the country. The immigrants were regarded as poor, uneducated, uncouth, and immoral, and in the case of Catholic immigrants as representatives and foot soldiers of a hostile government, the Vatican, headed by the Pope and the bishops. Those who opposed immigration formed a movement that was aimed at forbidding immigrants from being granted full rights, especially the rights of citizenship and voting. The fear was pervasive. Many Northern Whites were afraid that immigrants would take their jobs, since like slaves in the South, the new immigrants were a source of cheap labor.

Northern Protestant church leaders and ministers were some of the most vocal anti-immigrant voices and their words were echoed by politicians and in the press. The movement grew and used government action, the courts and violence to oppress the Irish and Germans who were the most frequent targets of their hate. The movement eventually became known as the “Know Nothing” movement.

Know Nothing leaders were not content to simply discuss their agenda in the forum of ideas and political discourse, they often used mob-violence and intimidation to keep Catholics away from the ballot box. Mobs of nativist Know Nothings sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even the thousands attacked immigrants in what they called “Paddy hunts,” Paddy being a slur for the Irish. To combat immigrants who might want to exercise their right to vote, the Know Nothings deployed gangs like the New York’s Bowery Boys and Baltimore’s Plug Uglies. They also deployed their own paramilitary organization to intimidate immigrants on Election Day. This group, known as the Wide Awakes was especially prone to use violence and physical intimidation in pursuit of their goals. The Nativist paramilitaries also provided security for anti-immigrant preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt their “prayer” meetings.

Know Nothing’s and other Nativist organizations, organized mass meetings throughout the country which were attended by thousands of men. The meetings were often led by prominent Protestant ministers who were rich in their use of preaching and prayer to rile up their audiences. The meetings often ended with physical attacks and other violence against German or Irish immigrants and sometimes with the burning of the local Catholic Church. They also provided security for preachers from angry immigrants who might try to disrupt nativist prayer meetings.

The violence was widespread and reached its peak in the mid-1850s.

Monday, August 6, 1855 was Election Day in Louisville, Kentucky. To prevent German and Irish Catholics from voting, Know Nothing mobs took to the street and launched a violent attack on immigrants as well as their churches and businesses. Known now as “Black Monday” the Nativists burned Armbruster’s Brewery, they rolled cannons to the doors of the St. Martin of Tours Church, the Cathedral of the Assumption and Saint Patrick’s Church, which they then were searched for arms. The private dwellings and the businesses of immigrants were looted. A neighborhood known as “Quinn’s Row” was burned with the inhabitants barricaded inside. At least 22 persons were killed in the violence and many more were injured. In Baltimore the 1856, 1857, and 1858 elections were all marred by violence perpetrated by Nativist mobs. In Maine, Know Nothing followers tarred and feathered a Catholic priest and burned down a Catholic church.

The Know Nothings did not merely seek to disenfranchise immigrants through violence alone, they were more sophisticated than that. They knew that to be successful they had to change the law. Then, as now, a new immigrant had to live in the United States for five years before becoming eligible to become a naturalized of the United States. The Know nothings felt that this was too short of time and their party platform in the 1856 election had this as one of the party planks:

A change in the laws of naturalization, making a continued residence of twenty-one years, of all not heretofore provided for, an indispensable requisite for citizenship hereafter, and excluding all paupers, and persons convicted of crime, from landing upon our shores; but no interference with the vested rights of foreigners.

The rational of the Know Nothings for the 21 year wait was that if a baby born in the United States had to wait until it was 21 years old he could vote, that immigrants were being permitted to “jump the line” and vote sooner than native-born Americans. But really what the Know Nothings wanted to was to destroy the ability of immigrant communities to use the ballot box. In many localities and some states Know Nothing majorities took power. The Massachusetts legislature, which was dominated by Know Nothings, passed a law barring immigrants from voting for two additional years after they became United States citizens.

A Know Nothing supporter recorded the 1856 Know Nothing Party platform. The similarities between it and many of the new nativists ideas are quite striking:

(1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws.

(2) None but Americans for office.

(3) A pure American Common School system.

(4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.

(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners.

(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality.

(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic.

(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.

(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws.

(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.

(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.

(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.

(13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.

(14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.

(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.

(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American Legislation, and Death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low

In addition to their violent acts, the use of the courts and political intimidation the Know Nothings waged a culture war against immigrants. Latin mottoes on courthouses were replaced by English translations. Actions were taken to remove immigrants who had become naturalized citizens from public offices and civil service jobs as well as to use the government to persecute Catholic churches. In Philadelphia, all naturalized citizens on the police force were fired, including non-Catholics who has supported Catholic politicians, and in Boston, a special board was set up to investigate the sex lives of nuns and other supposed crimes of the Catholic church.

In the political upheaval of the 1850s Nativists tried to find homes in the different political parties. Some Know Nothings who were abolitionists became part of the new Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln condemned them in harsh terms. He wrote his friend Joshua Speed about the hypocrisy that they displayed by supposedly being against the oppression of blacks while willing to oppress immigrants:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

As an organized movement, the Know Nothings died out by the early 1860s, migrating to different parties and causes. In the North many became part of the pro-slavery Copperhead movement, which opposed Lincoln on emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. In the post-war South the anti-Catholic parts of the Nativist movement found a home in the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations which also used racist and nativist propaganda to perpetuate violence, and disenfranchise emancipated blacks in the decades following the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. The Nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments have periodically found a home in different parts of the country and the electorate. Violence was used against Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants on the West Coast, against Mexicans in the Southwest, Italians, Slavs, Eastern Europeans and Jews in the Northeast.

Sadly it seems that it is being turned against others today. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political right that are doing their best in their local communities, state legislatures and even Congress to roll back civil liberties for various groups of people. There is a certain amount of xenophobia in regard to immigrants of all types, especially those with darker skin white Americans, but some of the worst is reserved for Arabs and other Middle-Easterners, even Arab Christians who are presumed as all Middle Easterners are to be Moslem terrorists, even those who have been here decades and hold respectable places in their communities.

But immigrants are not alone, there seems to be in some states a systematized attempt to disenfranchise the one group of people that has almost always borne the brunt of legal and illegal discrimination, African Americans.

Likewise there have been numerous attempts to roll back the rights of women, especially working women; the use of the legislature by religious conservatives to place limits on the reproductive rights of women, holding them to the standard of a religion that they do not practice. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling for Marriage Equality in Obergfell v. Hodges there still are numerous attempts to curb any civil rights, including the right to marriage or civil unions of the LGBT community.

As I said, this is nothing new, that hatred and intolerance of some toward anyone who is different than them, who they deem to be a threat is easily exploited by politicians, pundits and preachers, none of whom care for anything but their prosperity, ideology, religion, or cause. While I would not call them a new incarnation of the Know Nothings, I have to notice the similarities in their message and the way that they push their agenda. As for those among them who claim the mantle of Christ and call themselves Christians I am troubled, because I know that when religion is entwined with political movements that are based in repressing or oppressing others that it does not end well. As Brian Cox who played Herman Goering in the television miniseries Nuremberg told the American Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert played by Matt Craven “The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree?

That difference of degree does matter, and there have been and still could be times when the frustration and anger of people, especially religious people can be whipped into a frenzy of violence and government sanctioned oppression by unscrupulous politicians, preachers and pundits. History is replete with examples of how it can happen. When I think of this I am reminded of the close of Spencer Tracy’s remarks in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg:

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

Who and what are we?


Padre Steve+

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