Historians are people too. Like anyone else, we can let our personal prejudices color our perceptions. The gift of historical knowledge makes us no less prone to snap judgments. In the context of Black History Month, I am reminded of this as I considered the case of Hoda Muthana, the young American widow of an ISIS soldier, who wants to be re-admitted to the U.S.
Years ago, when visions of the Twin Towers still hung vividly in the memories of non-New Yorkers and when the digital ether buzzed with images of ISIS beheadings, I was quick to condemn the young American women who flew to Syria to offer themselves up willingly as brides for ISIS fighters. Today, I watch in stunned disbelief as these same women, now living in Syrian refugee camps, expect us to forgive them and welcome them back home.
Ms. Muthana, and at least 59 women like her, chose to leave her homeland behind and give aid and comfort to sworn enemies of the United States. Surely it must have occurred to her that by doing so, her days as an American were over. One side of me was happy to condemn her, but the historian in me cannot help but remember that 150 years ago, Americans were asking themselves these same questions about the Confederate soldiers after the war — and they somehow found the will to forgive them.
Given the extent of the insult, it did not take long for Northerners to forgive the South for the betrayal, the bloody deaths and needless suffering it caused. The experience proved that under certain circumstances, Americans can forgive almost anything.
Perhaps it is this that Ms. Muthana is thinking of as she makes her appeal for forgiveness. If so, then she does not know her history. Americans have shown we are historically selective about how we choose to treat our enemies. Ms. Muthana might stand more of a chance if she were white.
American history teaches us that, if you are the enemy, depending on the color of your skin, your treatment will vary.
Confederate soldiers, who had sworn devotion to the destruction of the United States and then acted on it, were slapped on the wrist, asked to put down their arms and told to behave. In contrast, for their mere resemblance to America’s enemy during World War II, Japanese-Americans were ripped from their homes and carted off to concentration camps in California.
During World War II, black American veterans and their families had to sit by and watch as Nazi prisoners of war got to ride in the ‘Whites Only’ section of the train while they themselves continued to be treated like marginal citizens of their own country.
Given that Ms. Muthana was only a bride and not a warrior, she might see more leniency if she didn’t also happen to be a woman of color. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already set the State Department to work looking for every legal means to discount her citizenship. The historian in me has seen this movie before.
Black History Month is a gift to those of us who believe Americans do not spend enough time thinking about their history or discussing issues surrounding race. In history, as in life, context is important. In the context of Black History Month, we should question if Ms. Muthana, and enemies of the state who look like her, will ever be treated fairly in this country.
I am not condoning Ms. Muthana’s crimes. But it is important to remember that, in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers who willingly took up arms against the United States and tried to destroy this country from within, people like Ms. Muthana are relatively benign. As a student of American history, and in the context of Black History Month, I also have to ask how much the color of Ms. Muthana’s skin has impacted American perceptions of the content of her character.
K. Ward Cummings is a former senior congressional adviser and the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.” Email:email@example.com; website: kwardcummings.com, Twitter: @kwardcummings.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this op-ed included a mistaken claim about World War I. The Sun regrets the error.