The Intolerance of Sensitivity

The following column originally appeared on Dec. 30, 2001:


As this holiday season comes to a close, so too does one of the newest traditions Americans have come to expect this time of year: reports of school officials, town councils and company presidents outlawing Christmas in the interest of cultural sensitivity.

But as the stories of dismantled nativity scenes, banned Santa Clauses and bans on wishing shoppers a "Merry Christmas" grow more outlandish, so does the logic and reasoning behind these decisions.

In the name of "tolerance" for all cultures, the community leaders and educators issuing these edicts are enforcing an intolerance of any culture. Instead of encouraging Americans to celebrate their rich cultural diversity, those banning cultural expression are asking us to deny that diversity.

If we were truly concerned with multiculturalism, we would erect a display in the town plaza or the elementary school lobby that incorporated the symbols of all holidays celebrated at this time of year. But instead of striving for an inclusiveness that would truly promote acceptance and understanding, we recognize our diversity by adhering to an exclusiveness that only keeps us suspicious and ignorant.

In any other year, this all could be chalked up to the frustrating and misguided inanity of political correctness run amok. But this holiday season, the "culture war" was no longer a metaphor. The United States is fighting a real war that is almost entirely about the clash of cultures and religion, the most virulent strain of intolerance and hatred and the most violent rejection of diversity.

With the squabbling over holiday expression in our public spaces coming to a close for this season, it may be worth it to keep in mind as we head into a new, and hopefully less awful and tragic year, that the terrorists who leveled the World Trade Center, tore a hole in the Pentagon and crashed a plane into a field in Pennsylvania were targeting Americans, period. Their hate did not make distinctions between the rich and the poor, the immigrant and the native born, the bond trader and the fireman, the religious and the atheist.

They were not targeting — or sparing, for that matter — Italian-Americans or African-Americans, Chinese immigrants or Puerto Ricans. They didn't choose among Christians or Jews. They showed no mercy or pity for Arab-Americans or fellow Muslims.

The terrorists who hate Americans and America don't draw the same distinctions or divisions between Americans that we do among ourselves. They were, and are, after all of us.

There may be no greater symbol of our democracy than America's diversity, the ideal — if not always the reality — of the equal and peaceful co-existence of so many people of different colors, races, nations, and faiths, and the inviolable rights of those people to express those differences and celebrate those heritages. Every time a school official or a town council shuts down a holiday expression, they distort and infringe upon the very essence of what it means to be an American.

We now have troops fighting and dying overseas to defend that culture, and thousands of families without their loved ones this Christmas because, by exemplifying the very best this culture had to offer, they became a target. Invoking "what it means to be an American" may ring of unsophisticated jingoism, but more than any other nation America is symbolized primarily by its people.

One of the many lessons we have learned since Sept. 11 is that beyond our borders, to those who seek to emulate us as well as to those who would destroy us, we are all simply Americans. Collectively and individually we represent an American culture that, if we did not know it already, we now know with absolute certainty, means something awesome and mighty to the rest of the world.