It was in 1971. I was 15 years old and in the 11th grade. My English teacher, whose name escapes me, gave us vocabulary words each week.
It was in this class I first learned the word, “xenophobia”—hatred or fear of strangers, foreigners, and their customs or culture. Though the word was new to me, the concept was not.
With all of changes we faced in the 1950s and 1960s, and as media coverage became more prevalent, there were daily reminders of the challenges faced by so many people as inequalities in human rights were exposed. The leaders of the time were no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and remain silent.
At home, there were family members who perpetuated the beliefs that were taught to them decades earlier—people who came from a different culture, ethnic background, or skin tone were to be looked at suspiciously, avoided, feared or hated.
Although I received this message from many others, I never bought into this belief. In fact, I was curious about others who looked different or spoke another language, had an accent, ate foods that were unusual to me, or anything else that set them apart from me in some way. I had a desire to learn and figure out what was so “scary” about them that would compel me to stay away. The more I learned, the more I wanted to discover.
Joining the military in 1973 gave me an opportunity to challenge the beliefs that society and family taught me, and I learned firsthand that human beings are really not much different from one another. Our experiences were what made us unique. Becoming independent and living away from home, I began to have more experiences that solidified my openness to others without the constant fear of criticism from my family.
I often wonder if we, in this world, have lived and learned past our xenophobic ideas. In the circles I keep, I would answer in the affirmative.
But this week, as we have watched the media tell the story of the killing of known terrorist, Osama bin Laden, I have come to a realization that we have not evolved much, if at all.
Terrorism exists and is based on hatred of others who do not share beliefs and customs. Osama bin Laden certainly terrorized many based on that hatred. And fear exists and is based upon suspiciousness and reaction to those terrors carried out against other human beings. We learned that lesson on September 11, 2001.
Yet, when I see the American people display frivolous jubilation at the spilling of the blood of the man we have so vehemently criticized for his evil-doings, it simply turns my stomach. Those who arrogantly claim to be righteous and civilized have now celebrated bloodshed with the debauchery of a frat-house beer bash.
To seek out and guarantee justice against those who are intent on spreading evil and destruction is certainly justified, in my eyes.
However, was celebratory reaction necessary? Was it justified? Is it not, in some fashion, on the same level, similar to the taunting and celebration Osama and his supporters displayed regarding the perceived “victory” against those they considered the infidel?
It saddens me that, though we have advanced in many ways in this country and the world in the 40 years since I was in that 11th grade class, xenophobia not only exists, but so many of us continue to define our lives by the very fear and hatred so many others have worked so hard to change.