The video begins cheerily, with news of a mosque opening in Washington, "capital of a land founded in the struggle for religious freedom," according to the audio.
The president, along with the First Lady, are "greeted by the leaders of the Muslim diplomatic corps in Washington" before entering the mosque "built by the cooperative efforts of 15 Muslim countries." In a city known for landmarks, the reporter concludes that, "The mosque is one of the most beautiful places of worship in Washington. And as the United States is one of the most cosmopolitan countries on earth, it's likely to be well attended."
President Obama and Michelle? Not exactly. The British Pathe newsreel report on President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, was made in 1957, when the United States seemingly had a more tolerant view of Islam.
Fifty-three years later, the face of this week's internationally distributed video of America's accommodation to one of the world's great religions was Terry Jones, the small-minded pastor of a tiny Florida congregation who threatened to publicly burn Qur'ans.
The contrast shows just how far America has moved from the quiet confidence of the post-war era to one convulsed in the noisy insecurity of the post-9/11 era.
And it's not just the threat of Qur'an burning. It's also the inflammatory rhetoric over plans in lower Manhattan to build an Islamic cultural center (wordsmithed by cynical opponents as the "ground zero mosque"). What should be a constitutionally clear and common-sense issue has become muddied by demagoguery from irresponsible radio and television pundits as well as prominent politicians -- including Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Even normally open-minded New Yorkers have taken the bait, with two-thirds wanting the center to be built further away from ground zero, according to a New York Times poll.
Then there's the shocking rise in the number of Americans -- 18 percent overall and 34 percent of self-described conservative Republicans, according to an August Pew Poll -- who believe Obama is Muslim. This is more sinister than ignorant. Many who won't attack Obama's race choose the coded bigotry of religion, assuming that to other like-minded Americans, "Muslim" is a pejorative.
America's increasing intolerance of Islam is reaching crisis proportions. On Sept. 7, an interfaith emergency summit was held in Washington -- "capital of a land founded in the struggle for religious freedom," as the newsreel reminds us -- to decry "the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry" aimed at Muslim Americans. "This is not America," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the emeritus Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington. "America was not built on hate."
We weren't built on hate, but we are walling ourselves off with it. Hatred of Muslims appears to be ramping up even though millions of Muslim Americans -- including thousands of East Africans, South Asians and others right here in Minnesota -- chose to live here in part due to our religious tolerance. And we're losing hearts and minds internationally, a point well made not just by diplomats, but Gen. David Petraeus as well.
Indeed, the rising Islamophobia is like a reverse Uncle Sam recruiting poster, playing right into the hands of violent jihadists who all along have been trying to frame this conflict as a clash of Christianity and Islam. Of course it is no such thing: Sensible Americans know that just as Jones' dark heart doesn't diminish the light of America's majority religion, Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 plotters hijacked airplanes -- not an entire faith with more than 1 billion believers.
"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," said another president. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. ... In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."
That wisdom came from President George W. Bush, just six days after that dreadful day in New York nine years ago. Surely if he, in the heat of the carnage, could summon the better angels of our nature, nine years hence we're a better nation than we've been showing the world and ourselves.