Archive for Thursday, September 20, 2001

Ethnic hatred must be avoided

Grandfather’s memories provide a cautionary tale

September 20, 2001

Events of the last week made me think of a story I heard my granddad tell many times.

It concerned an incident in granddad's boyhood in Clay Center, Kan. As he told the story, his older sister's swain was a young officer in the National Guard. Granddad admired the suitor and the sword the Guardsman sometimes carried as a token of his rank.

I don't know what the National Guard's duties were in early 20th century rural Kansas, but I'd guess they were limited to state and local relief actions. Training standards, I am sure, were much more relaxed than they are now that the National Guard plays a vital role in our national defense. The country had an isolationist world view in those days, and it is hard to conceive the Guardsmen deep in the heart of Kansas felt threatened by any foreign foe.

That changed in March 1916 when Poncho Villa raided the border town of Columbus, N.M., killing 26 American civilians. Most of us know the raid led to Gen. John Pershing's 11-month pursuit of Villa's forces in northern Mexico. The pursuit produced little, and although a war of words continued on both sides, Pershing's troops and Mexican revolutionary forces aided one another on the ground.

Granddad recalled a much grimmer local response. Upon receiving word of Villa's action, the local Guardsmen raided an isolated encampment of Hispanic railroad workers west of the town. According to granddad, the Guardsmen returned to town boasting of killing the entire crew.

I always assumed granddad was hearing tales of inflated bravado. The Guardsmen probably went to the encampment, bullied and humiliated the Hispanic workers and left satisfied with their defense of the homeland.

But granddad believed the worst. His previous admiration for his sister's boyfriend turned to disgust. As he got older, the tale seemed to haunt him. It was a rare visit when he didn't bring it up. Late in his 80s, the man who rarely ventured far from his farm even drove the considerable distance to his boyhood hometown to ask a local newspaper publisher what he knew of the incident. The answer was nothing. By that time, memory of the Guardsmen's raid may have survived with granddad alone.

While I still doubt the full horror of granddad's story, I have no doubt the unjustified raid occurred. Encampments for Hispanic railroad workers were commonplace, and they would have been inviting targets for poorly trained local militia units bent on revenge.

My granddad's account demonstrates that the oft-quoted axiom that truth is the first causality of war is wrong. The first victim, it seems, is tolerance.

Still, I think we can detect a degree in national maturity in our response to last week's terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. There have been too many unwarranted attacks of Moslem and Arab residents, many of whom are American citizens. But there have been no incidents of organized or institutional violence. To his credit, President Bush has condemned unwarranted attacks on our Moslem and Arab residents and visited mosques to make his point.

It will be an ongoing test. We are moving toward war. We have to remember our foes are the isolated losers who focus their hatred on America and its institutions to compensate for their own shortcomings. If we become obsessed with ethnic hatreds of whole peoples, we will create problems our military might won't resolve.

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