WASHINGTON - When did so many of us become so fearful? When did we, proud of our melting-pot origins, become determined to keep out immigrant families seeking a chance at the American dream?
When did we stop being proud of our government and start hoarding guns to protect us against the invasion of our homes by mythical government storm troopers? When did churches start publicly protesting which boys could belong to the Boy Scouts and which ones should be ostracized?
When did we become so afraid?
Was it 9/11? Was it the popularity of conspiracy movies? Was it the disappearance of the middle class? Was it when we began to worry that the American dream itself might be dying?
Most Americans are living their lives as always -- working hard, teaching their children the difference between right and wrong, how to be tolerant and that being happy means helping others. Most Americans are proud of their neighborhoods and their communities and their government and America's place in the world.
But now we read that 40 percent of us absolutely oppose a ban on sales of high-capacity gun magazines because if we want to shoot a hundred bullets in the flick of a few eyelashes, that is our right.
Nearly half of us oppose limiting sales of assault weapons, the kind designed to kill as many soldiers on the battlefield as possible, on the theory we all have a right to own semi-automatics.
Even after children at an elementary school are mowed down by assault weapons and even after a madman shoots and kills the driver of a school bus and takes a 5-year-old hostage, we are told that serious new gun control measures are dead in Congress.
While we acquiesce to smoking bans and requirements that houses have smoke detectors and laws that require us to register our cars, we balk at registering our weapons.
We have become a multiethnic, bilingual nation. Yet many of us speak of the 11 million undocumented people living among us as though they are evil invaders from another planet who must be thrown out. There are demands for concrete barriers topped with barbed wire and machine guns raised against their return.
While religious tolerance in our society is preciously guarded, some religions are engaged in wholesale opposition to the people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Pious people urge the Boy Scouts of America not to permit gay children to join their ranks. Yet some of the hierarchies of some of those religions harbored pedophiles in their midst for decades.
We are proud of our amazing food supply, including an incredible array of tasty products that have no nutritional value but contribute to making obesity one of our most serious health issues. Yet we stigmatize overweight people, discriminating against them in the workplace and in our schools. The popular governor of a major state worries that he might not be able to run for president unless he loses weight.
Our beloved Constitution demands separation of church and state, yet no national politician dares say he or she is a nonbeliever. No president would refuse to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast to proclaim his deep belief in God. It would be political suicide.
Why, in this fabulous country with unimaginable wealth and opportunities denied to hundreds of millions in other countries, are we so afraid? Is it about clinging to a disappearing status quo? Is it fear of those who are different? Is it being afraid of a loss of what we have acquired, that what is ours will be taken away? Perhaps. But at the root of such fear is an ugliness that is un-American. Let's return to the recognition that America is a big tent, with room enough for everyone to prosper.
We went through truly bad days in the 1860s, when it was not certain the nation would remain united. We survived that test and prospered. We will do it again. We must fear being afraid.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.