It was a time of unprecedented uncertainty, gloom and deprivation. The middle class was collapsing, and a banking crisis was sucking away capital and life savings at an alarming pace.
When the young president addressed the country after taking the oath of office, he acknowledged as much right off. But before he launched into how the country might rise from the blows, he first asserted his belief that the nation would endure, revive and once again prosper.
And second he called out the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
“The only thing we have to fear,” Franklin Roosevelt said, “is fear itself.”
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You probably know that quote. You probably wouldn’t know it had his assertion that the country would rise not come to pass and had a generation, the one we rightly call our greatest, not overcome the fear that gripped the nation in 1932. The path out of the Great Depression was difficult, complicated and full of vicious battles in politics and in the streets. But it was not one of retreat.
Ten years later, the country was at war on two bloody fronts against armies already tested in battle. There was no retreat there, either. Throughout that era, despite the awful circumstances, they seized the future. They built roads and bridges and libraries, a public health system and a safety net for the elderly. These are not the acts of people who live in fear.
Today, sadly, we are writing a new chapter in history, one which details a nation living in fear and in retreat from its own legacy.
Like you, like me, we come in one way or another from people seeking refuge in this land.
Here, in our community, we have a long history of offering refuge. In recent decades, we’ve have welcomed people driven from their homes by war, famine and unspeakable atrocities. Among them are families fleeing death squads in Central America, rampaging armies in former Soviet republics and the indiscriminate bombings of refugee camps along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.
They have been through things we can only try to imagine and, in many cases, if somehow they were to be returned to their county of origin would face imprisonment, torture and death.
It is hard to understand what causes someone to rationalize the use of refugees for political gain, though it’s not uncommon and surfaces in every chapter of our collective history. But the most recent attempt by our governor and others to conflate the oppressed with their oppressors, to spread fear and fan the already brightly glowing coals of religious intolerance stands to be the headline for this era.
History teaches that once fear takes hold it knows no boundaries and spreads like wildfire.
Already we’re seeing the fears raised about Syrians that might come here, spread to those who have already been vetted and settled. Unchecked, that suspicion could quickly jump to other nationalities and nurture the anti-immigrant fervor that has whipped up crowds in the presidential race.
In this state, there have been few voices in opposition to this fear mongering and those who have stood up to it, including our mayors, deserve our thanks and support.
Meanwhile, in a shameless act of campaigning [if there still is such a thing], the governor is raising money off of his stance. His appeal begins: “In this difficult time, we must think first of our own security.”
That is the stuff of isolationism, retreat and is, ultimately, an act of surrender to terror.
That was what FDR was talking about. Because what we really have to fear isn’t trying to slip across the border, it is already here and spreading fast.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org