I first met Mark when he was still in high school. His family were recent immigrants to the United States and shared a mutual friend of the family. They operated a restaurant in my hometown, and were finally ready to step up to their part of the American dream and purchase their first house. Our friend had referred them to my father to act as their realtor, and I assisted him in the transaction.
At age 15, Mark understood the housing market and business transactions better than most twice his age. It became clear when showing homes that he would actually been the deciding force in which home was purchased, and I quickly learned to make sure he understood and was pleased with the implications of each potential home. It was truly a special day when the family closed on their first home, and the celebration afterward with a large extended family was one to behold.
It was shortly after this time that I made my one and only run for public office, and Mark volunteered for my campaign, doing whatever was asked of him and initiating other tasks in his spare time. He loved his new home country, and seemed to understand and appreciate both the benefits and responsibilities of being an American better than many of us who inherited our citizenship. He took his entry level participation in politics seriously, but did so with an infectious enthusiasm that made all of us who came in contact with him appreciate our own country of birth even more.
Like most immigrants from his country, Mark’s family was quite religious, but my town didn’t have a Catholic parish for them to worship in. They chose a parish on the other side of Atlanta to worship with, because they had a long term plan to open a new parish within a few miles of their new home. The only time the family was not at the restaurant, they were usually involved some activity related to their congregation. Between his school schedule, work, and church, I understood how valuable the time he donated to my campaign, and later others, was. But he loved America, appreciated the Republican approach to freedoms within limited government, and wanted to do his part as a good citizen.
I made a point to eat lunch in Mark’s restaurant a few days after 9/11. Though he was in school, his mother had time to sit and talk with me on that rather sad day. I was especially interested in their perspective as “new” Americans, and wanted to make sure they were holding up well under the circumstances, though I still wasn’t sure many of us “old” Americans were holding up that well, either. She told me how much they remained proud to be here in this country, and to have been allowed to be a part of it. She spoke of how many others had been checking on the family during this time, reassuring them that everything was going to be O.K. It was a brief time, you may remember, when we were all Americans. There were no Republicans, there were no Democrats.
Before I left, I asked her if there was anything she needed. She told me that she had been searching for an American Flag to fly in front of the Restaurant, but all the stores had sold out. I told her I would see what I could do. It took about three days and a search committee of about 10 of my fellow Kiwanians, but she received a large flag that flew in front of her restaurant for years after.
I was able to work on a few campaigns with Mark before he went off to college. Through his hard work, good grades, and community activities, he was able to receive a scholarship to the University of Southern California. We traded the occasional note and visited when he came home during breaks. He maintained his enthusiasm and love of country. And I looked forward to him coming home after a summer foreign exchange trip to finish out a primary campaign which I was working on.
I stopped by the restaurant after the town’s 4th of July Parade and saw the sign on the door. As I looked closer and was realizing it wasn’t just a standard “Closed for the Holiday” sign, Mark’s father walked up behind me. The look on his face and the posture of his body instantly connected with the words “family emergency” on the sign. A proud man who rarely showed emotion, he instantly broke down as he tried to explain to me that Mark’s body was being flown into Atlanta that afternoon. He had drowned on the last day of his trip. He asked if there was any way I would be able to attend the funeral with the family that afternoon.
I agreed to go without hesitation, despite the campaign activities that were planned for the rest of the day. A grieving father’s personal request trumps parades and BBQ’s any day. But I didn’t understand why the funeral was that afternoon when he was not even home yet.
And this is where I should explain that Mark’s name was not Mark, but Mohammed, and his family was not Catholic, but Muslim. Muslim custom is that a person is buried before sundown, and thus he would be taken directly from his plane to the family’s mosque for a funeral service, then directly to the cemetery for burial. It is the only time I have ever been in a mosque, but I can attest that grief looks the same no matter the type of house of worship.
So, I’ve told you that so we can discuss this; Last week, a gunman at Ft Hood Texas opened fire on his fellow soldiers and civilians, killing 13 and wounding an additional 30. It’s easy to put this in the trite category of “senseless tragedy”, but the magnitude of the dead and wounded, the religion of the killer, and the fact he was preparing to deploy to a warzone that many now feel the country has lost its will to support will no doubt keep this story alive for some time to come. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those involved in this senseless act.
Unfortunately, there have already been many to single out the religion of the murderer as a singular sign that he “should have been watched” or should not have been in the military altogether. Since 9/11, it has been very easy to point to Muslims as guilty before proven innocent members of society. Anecdotal evidence of 3000 dead at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or 13 dead at Ft. Hood makes a quick, off the cuff justification of doing so simple. It does not, however, make it right.
As easy as I switched the name and religion in my story, the same could be done for a terrorist named El-Amin who bombed sporting events, night clubs, and medical facilities targeting Americans, except that his name was Eric Robert Rudolph and he was a zealot of the Christian variety.
Instead of trying to choose between good religions and bad, I think it much easier as well as more appropriate to concern ourselves with zealots of any caliber. Yet, even trying to determine where the line is where one has crossed from devout into zealotry is problematic, and suggesting the government should have a standard for this stretches the limits of the Constitution.
I would ask my many Facebook friends who have been calling for Muslims to be restricted in their roles within the Armed Services how they would feel if Christians were similarly singled out. While I’m sure there are many who will offer the simplistic answer that we were founded as a “Christian Nation”, I would ask them what their reaction was when they learned that various “right wing”, mostly Christian groups were listed as potential terrorist organizations by the U.S. Justice Department earlier this year.
At the end of the day, I do not fear Muslims. I fear zealots of any religion. But the greatest fear of all is that of a government that views religion in general as a destabilizing, threatening force. We have for the last decade or more pointed at Islamic regimes in the middle east as a threat to our national security. I would suggest we take a harder look at the use of the actions of zealots as an excuse to monitor or track religious activities of those we don’t agree with, or those we fear.
Once the pattern and practice is established, it does not take much for the government to change the names of those under surveillance from Mohammed to Mark. We should not be allowing our fears for national security to lay the groundwork for additional intrusions or limitations upon or freedom of religion. If we allow the precedent to be set with Muslims, we should not be surprised when the government wishes to track the Methodists.