An open letter to Maine state Sen. Michael Willette

Dear Sen. Willette,

When I read about your Facebook posts, I saw you said some foolish things about President Obama and made some awful anti-Muslim remarks.

You can put me down among the Mainers who think there is an opportunity here for something positive. Achieving that would require the hard work of sincere deliberation and dialogue.

Implying that Obama is a traitor in league with ISIS is hyperbolic nonsense. But the U.S. has a long history of distasteful statements about politicians, even from our esteemed founding fathers.

It’s when we go after our fellow citizens that florid, negative rhetoric gets more problematic.

There are about as many American Muslims as Jewish Americans. The vast majority of Muslim-Americans are law-abiding and loyal.

In response to one image about American Muslims you wrote, “Round them up and air drop them back into the rubble and hell holes from whence they came.”

You also said Muslims are genetically predisposed to covertly plan to overthrow the U.S.

Seeing everyone of one religion as the same is flat wrong. It’s as wrong as when people say that people of the same race, sex, sexual orientation, age, or national origin share the same characteristics. Highly negative stereotypes translate into not seeing people as individuals who display their own characteristics, show their own sins, or demonstrate their own talents and mettle.

Those kinds of sentiments especially bother me for two reasons.

One is that, as a Jew, my people have had others paint us as treasonous, prone to horrible actions and not fully human, and therefore deserving of everything from discrimination to purging from a nation to murder. I have had my share of anti-Semitic comments directed at me, and members of my own family were caught up in the eliminationist machine that killed millions of Jews in Europe.

This history gives me, you might say, a certain sensitivity to offensive stereotypes about all members of a minority religion.

Another reason is the United States has had periods when our nation didn’t treat individuals as individuals. In 1940, in a case later reversed, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses could not decline to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Violence against Witnesses flared up across the country. Other examples involve the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the enslavement and later discrimination against African-Americans.

As President Obama said in his recent speech in Selma, Alabama, we have made great progress as a nation toward our place where all are created equally. However, comments like yours are a step backward because they promote stereotypes.

In response to having your views publicly revealed, you gave a rather limited apology that didn’t mention your anti-Muslim views. The Maine Republican Party, to its credit, released a strong statement.

Blogger Mike Tipping, who initially reported on your posts, found you have been “liking posts and making new comments defending [your] previous statements, even after saying [you were] sorry for them.”

In fact, since your posts were revealed, you called the reaction to them a “text book example of feigned outrage.”

Should you sincerely feel sorry for your remarks, you can act in a way that will be helpful to you as a person and to Maine as a whole.

My suggested course of action comes from my religious tradition. Before Jews reach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are supposed to repent. This is called making teshuvah, a concept that has to do with changing internally and returning to purity and holiness.

One key element of teshuvah, of repentance, is sincerely apologizing to those we have wronged. We can’t be forgiven by God unless we take this step.

I suggest that you take the difficult step of giving up defensiveness and turn to internal reflection, and also learn about our Muslim neighbors and reach out to them for conversation and to apologize.

Maine has benefited from our Muslim population, as they have become students and shopkeepers.

For our state to flourish, we need young people of all types, and we need to welcome people from away.

At a time when there is all too much division and defensiveness, this can be an opportunity to make Maine better, if you would engage in sincere dialogue.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.