This week, Bloomberg Businessweek said Crestwood was Missouri's best community in which to raise children, citing the community's great schools, low tax rates and excellent municipal services. One of those municipal services is the ability of any resident to use space in Crestwood City Hall as a meeting place.
All the group has to do is fill out a one-page form for a permit and agree to the city's meeting-room guidelines. Those include leaving the room clean and orderly and refraining from "loud, boisterous, rude or other unacceptable conduct."
The First Amendment dictates that the city can't censor the content of any such meeting, however hateful or fictional its message.
And so it was on Wednesday, that about a dozen people attended an event in the Crestwood aldermanic chambers called "What America Must Learn from the Fort Hood Massacre."
The St. Louis chapter of ACT! for America, a Florida-based, anti-Islam group that calls itself a National Security Organization, organized the meeting, which featured the screening of an hourlong DVD lecture by the organization's executive director, Guy Rodgers.
The event was advertised in a weekly newspaper. Referring to the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, the ad copy said, "It is essential that Americans understand why homegrown Jihadists like Nidal Hasan do what they do."
Political forces set on eliminating a particular religious or ethnic group often use propaganda to convince the masses of their righteousness. A key device of persuasion is the systematic dehumanization of those in the target group.
In Nazi Germany, Jews were often portrayed in anti-Semitic literature — most famously in Julius Streicher's "Der Stürmer" — as vermin or cockroaches. By routinely referring to the hated Tutsis as inyezi, or cockroaches, broadcasters on Hutu-run radio goaded ordinary Rwandans into killing their neighbors with machetes during the 1994 genocide.
Genocide scholar James Waller writes that dehumanization occurs after the target group has been defined as what sociologists call the out-group. When the in-group exaggerates the differences between itself and an out-group, it creates a bias "toward information that enhances the differences" between the two groups, instead of the similarities, writes Waller.
In Rwanda, Hutu ideology defined Tutsis as alien to the country despite their long history as natives. The Nazis assigned an imaginary hereditary superiority to Aryanness, and defined Judaism as anathema to that superiority.
Nazi Germany is seen as a chapter in history. The massacre of nearly a million Tutsis over 100 days happened in Africa, far from suburban St. Louis.
The dehumanization of a religious group, an initial step toward the moral disengagement that leads to radical evil, couldn't happen in 21st century America, right?
Unfortunately for American Muslims, we are about to enter a presidential election year, during which groups like ACT! for America and the Clarion Fund have historically spread anti-Islam messages that promote fear of "the other." Both groups formed in the wake of the unprecedented attacks on the United States by Muslim terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
It's a message that has been trumpeted from Crestwood City Hall before.
Last September, a group called the New Gravois Township Conservative Republican Party showed a film called "The Third Jihad" in a City Hall meeting room The film was produced by the Clarion Fund, an organization with historic ties to Aish HaTorah, an orthodox Jewish education network based in Jerusalem, and claims that terrorists have infiltrated the United States with the intent of "eliminating western civilization from within."
After receiving complaints about the video, the city decreed a policy forbidding political and religious groups from using City Hall's meeting rooms. The city's aldermen suspended the ban two months later after strenuous opposition from members of the New Gravois Township Conservative Republican Party. Roy Robinson, Crestwood's mayor at the time, apologized to the Republican committeeman for the ban.
The DVD lecture on Wednesday evening in Crestwood was a walk through the Quran's violent passages, which Rodgers depicted as coming from the latter part of Muhammad's life. He said that Islam's prophet gained more followers with violence than he had with an earlier, more peaceful approach to spreading the faith.
The lecture soon moved on to the Obama administration's failures to name the "threat" against the United States (jihad, according to Rodgers.) The DVD lecture finished with a swipe at the government, academia and the media for playing along with terrorists and failing to recognize that the U.S. Constitution is in danger of being replaced by sharia, or Islamic, law at the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood.
When the lights went up, the crowd wanted to talk. Use of the word "Muslim" was rare. Instead, the audience preferred the terms "they" and "them."
"When they move to a new country, they don't assimilate," one man said.
"They don't value education in the same way we do," said Liz Trent, ACT! for America's Southern Illinois chapter leader.
"We celebrate birthdays, and they celebrate death anniversaries," Trent added. "They are the opposite of us. They celebrate death and we celebrate life."
"I heard the Saudis are funding chairs in our universities," a woman said.
"They have infiltrated our culture at every level," said Trent.
"What do we need to do to stop it?" a woman asked.
Trent said that since a federal judge blocked Oklahoma's decision to prohibit its courts from considering sharia law in its decisions, the new front was 'specific laws." Coming legislation, for instance, would "ban anyone from mutilating their child's genitals," Trent said. Someone asked if that wouldn't be covered under existing law.
"No, no," Trent said. "Slavery, murder, abuse of a child — all of that is legal under Islam, so it's protected."
When a target group is identified as a race or religion that the in-group sees as inferior or threatening, dehumanization follows, writes Waller. The target group is stigmatized as alien. The in-group uses language suggesting the target group deserves persecution.
In the civic heart of Missouri's best child-rearing community, the executive director of an anti-Islam organization looked down from a white screen and told a dozen people that tolerance was the enemy in the fight against Muslims.
"They're everywhere," one woman in the audience whispered to her friend. "They're like cockroaches."