David Axelrod's memoir "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics" is filled with riveting political anecdotes. In more than 500 pages, Axelrod chronicled growing up in New York and how he was inspired into politics by John F Kennedy then moved on to Chicago politics after college. Axelrod transitioned to political consulting and the firm he established, AKPD Message and Media, managed the successful presidential campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
On the eve of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, fear of the unknown paralyzed Axelrod. Axelrod writes on pages 338-339 about being consumed with fear by “fugitive Somalis” slipping into America with plans to commit terrorism.
Axelrod received a phone call from Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff designate for President Elect Barack Obama. Emanuel described to Axelrod how four young Somali-Americans suspected of being radicalized overseas had slipped back into America with plans to target the swearing-in ceremony. The source of information was Michael Chertoff, the outgoing Homeland Security Sectary under President George W Bush.
Emanuel directed Axelrod to write an addendum into the president’s inaugural speech. Obama would approach the podium and ask the crowd to disburse in an orderly fashion, avoiding a stampede. Emanuel asked Axelrod not to tell anyone about the conversation.
Axelrod obliged. But the news and the exercise of writing the contingency instruction hemorrhaged him. “All night long, I tossed and turned, listening to police sirens and wondering if they were related to the search for the fugitive Somalis,” Axelrod wrote. No fugitives were arrested and the episode turned out to be fear of the unknown — with collateral victims.
Unreported by Axelrod, police intercepted a group of Somali-Americans from Minnesota led by community organizer Shafi Hashi. They were eager to witness history. Hashi’s group went to Washington to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the nation's first African-American president, a moment of enormous pride for most Americans. This group was looking forward to the event and planned to document stories to tell their children and grandchildren. Instead, the group was targeted and subjected to interrogation.
Another group of ebullient Obama admirers were en route to Washington when they were stopped at a border crossing with Canada. Border agents cleared everyone in the group to cross but refused to permit a Canadian woman of Somali decedent. The group vehemently protested and ultimately reversed the border agent’s discriminatory decision. This group would have no problem crossing the border on a normal day but fear of the known trigged pandemonium.
Reactions due to fear of the unknown have no place in American society. Franklin D Roosevelt made that clear with the everlasting phrase of “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt characterized fear of the unknown as “…nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
One of the keys to overcoming fear of the unknown is understanding the shifting paradigm. As it turns out, Axelrod, Emanuel and Chertoff were searching and making contingency plans for Somalis slipping into America while Somali-American youth were slipping out.
A few months prior to Obama’s first inauguration, Zakariya Abdi, a fiery speaker and politician in Somalia who lived in London at the time, asked Somali-Americans assembled at the Minneapolis Convention Center to come back in order to fight Ethiopia’s invasion.
We later learned the Somali-American young men had left for Somalia instead of slipping into America as feared. This is a clear example of leaders in the upper echelons of American government making plans for the exact opposite scenario because they don't understand the community's paradigm.
Fear of the unknown is paralyzing Somali-Americans as well. Instead of exploring new political opportunities that help solve community challenges, Somalis cling to what they know best and continue to hope to go back to Somalia. This fallacy is often re-enforced with a degree of success by Somali political leaders like Zakariya Abdi.
The fact that Somalis cling to the hope of returning to Somalia has led to an impression of a community disloyal to America. Nothing could be further from the truth. A Somali who came to America as an infant is no less patriotic than a naturally born one with generational roots. But associations with dangerous youth trigger different emotions in in the public psyche.
David Axelrod documented many fascinating American stories in his memoir. Pages 338-339 reflect many Americans' unjustified fear of Somali-Americans. The upper echelons of American politics have responsibility to understand the Somali community's paradigm and lead the nation in overcoming fear of the unknown. Somali-Americans also have to make hard choices to overcome their own fear of the unknown and work to reverse an impression of disloyal citizens. A combination of these efforts will convert current attitudes and help us advance as a society.