I knew when I wrote about our pro tem governor's encouragement of vigilantism earlier this week that I'd be scattering the bats in the attic.
I cautioned myself to tone down the rhetoric because illegal immigration is an emotional issue, and the governor is perceived by his ardent supporters as the battering, bone-crushing, all-powerful robotic creature he has portrayed on the screen.
I suspect that, like L. Ron Hubbard, a church will someday be founded in his name.
As I sat out under an oak tree thinking about the whole thing, I decided from experience that race hatred as well as economics were the elements of the desire to seal America's borders. It wouldn't really matter whether the immigrants were legal or illegal, if they came in significant enough numbers, they'd still be the targets of misanthropy. Brown-skinned people who talk funny have always been suspect.
Even worse, they're willing to take on menial jobs, such as washing dishes and cleaning houses, and as a result they're everywhere. If they weren't, we'd have to hire un-reconstituted white hippies to wash restaurant dishes and American women would have to mop their own floors.
Reflecting on all this on that day that glowed with the emergence of a new season, before the heat of high noon bore down, I decided that there are some things that had to be said, and so I picked words from the morning and began to write.
What I wrote was, more or less, that a governor who encourages civilians with guns to patrol the border is something less than the thinker of the day. It wasn't long after Schwarzenegger's praise of the now-disbanded Arizona Minutemen that a group in Chino announced it planned to patrol California's border this summer and that some of its members might be packing guns.
It doesn't matter that only some of the Minutemen had weapons and that only some members of the new group might also. If there were or are any guns at all among the vigilantes, as President Bush calls them, it's an invitation to bloodshed. You don't pack a gun unless there's a willingness to use it.
So I wrote what I felt, what I had observed, what I had read, what I had heard and what I knew. And the e-mails came sizzling in:
"Dear Burrito for brains," began one, going on to point out that "we're a nation with borders," and adding, "Those criminals that wish to come to this country should do as my parents did and WAIT for their rightful turn at entering legally."
Another, writing about "illigal imagration," said, "Coming from a person with a last name of Martinez I can see why you would write a piece like this," and concluded with, "Go back to Mexico and leave us true Americans alone, beaner."
I think "beaner" should be capitalized, but I'm not going to quibble over the proper use of an expletive.
And another: "Your attitude is typical of Latinos who defend illegal immigration" and "They are YOUR people, Mexicans. What would your attitude be if the aliens were primarily Chinese? African? Indian?"
It would depend upon yours, which, I'm sure, would be severely restrictive.
Although others wished that I would go back to where I came from, meaning Mexico, not Oakland, where I actually came from, one e-mailer summed it up quite nicely, I thought: "I don't even wish for you to go to Mexico. I wish for you to go to hell."
And finally, one addressed to "al martinez: Mexican greaseball and ESL graduate." There was no message, but then, I guess, one wasn't required.
Well, all right.
I don't mind strong responses. I don't exactly write timid prose myself. As for being called a beaner, a greaser and other names rooted in ethnic abasement, I grew up hearing them even before immigration was America's pop issue. And their usage in this particular instance only proves I'm right in feeling that racism is at least one element in the growing effort to tighten the borders.
Humanity can't seem to exist without a common enemy, whether the animosity is tribal, cultural, racial, religious or ethnic. We need to feel superior to someone else to prove our own worth or to secure our own positions. We can justify attacks on enemies of the village through the rationale of fear or economics and feel self-righteous about it when leaders validate our antipathies with thoughtless endorsements.
Like the action heroes he has portrayed, Schwarzenegger assumes himself to be larger than life and therefore beyond the rules that govern human conduct. He was talking out of a well of testosterone rather than good sense when he encouraged civilian border patrols by praising the Minutemen.
I'm aware that not all of those who seek tighter borders are racists, and I understand there are problems to be solved. But they won't be solved by teasing at the potential for violence or by tolerating the presence of bigots whose hatreds diminish us all.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.