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Urban Rhythms

If Looks Could Kill

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 9/26/2001

The moment Osama bin Laden and his followers were fingered as the most likely suspects in the suicide hijackings of Sept. 11, it became all but inevitable that Arab-Americans would be harassed by both private citizens and law-enforcement officials. The only surprise has been President Bush, who seems to have gone out of his way to convince the public that his newly declared war on terrorism is not synonymous with a war on Arabs and Muslims.

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," the president declared during a visit to a Washington-area mosque on Sept. 17. "Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace, they represent evil and war. When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world.

"America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country," he continued. "Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads, and they need to be treated with respect."

This was a stirring speech, even finer than the president's address to both houses of Congress a few days later. And that speech may go down as the most eloquent nondeclaration of a nonwar in history. As a matter of fact, those two presidential addresses are worth considering side by side. In his address before Congress, Bush trotted out some of our most cherished clichés about freedom and democracy. But in his speech at the mosque, the president illustrated what those terms are really all about.

"In our anger and emotion," he said, "our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."

Unfortunately, not everyone is listening.

Within hours of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, Internet chat rooms were flooded with invective against Arabs. In San Francisco, someone threw a bag of blood at an immigration office that serves Arabs. In Gary, Ind., a man in a ski mask fired an assault rifle at a gas-station worker of Yemenite descent. Two Muslim girls were beaten at Moraine Valley College in Palos Hills, Ill. Police report at least two killings--one in Texas, one in Arizona--that may have been motivated by anti-Arab sentiment.

Within 24 hours of the terrorist attack, Muslim and Arab-American groups reported more than 100 assaults nationwide against women wearing head scarves, men in Muslim dress, or people who merely looked Middle Eastern. After a week, the number of incidents had grown to nearly 500.

I have heard of some fairly ludicrous cases close to home. A restaurant owner in Pikesville reports that a customer dumped a Mediterranean salad on the floor because he objected to anything from that region. A co-worker drove to Washington on business and was harassed at several stop lights going into the city and several stop lights heading out again--and she is of Indian descent.

Meanwhile, law-enforcement officials worked hand in glove with the media to fan the fear. Even as the president sounded conciliatory notes, unnamed sources were telling the media of secret terrorist cells hiding in unnamed cities across the country. We were given profiles of the alleged suicide bombers that emphasized their ordinariness. They were described as fanatical murderers who hate America and everything we stand for, yet look just like everyday Arabs and Muslims. Given that description, the only persons of Middle Eastern extraction who would not be suspect are those who actually look like mad-dog killers.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that approximately 125 people of Arab extraction have been detained by law-enforcement authorities in the two weeks since the attack, while "hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been questioned." A Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans support requiring persons of Arab descent, including U.S. citizens, to undergo special scrutiny before boarding airplanes. And in an LA Times poll, 68 percent of respondents backed random stops of persons who fit the profile of a terrorist. (Remember that the profile we have heard so far emphasizes their ordinariness.)

In short, this crisis--like every crisis--has brought out both the best and the worst in us. President Bush has sounded at times like the cowboy simpleton we expected him to be, but he has been out front in reminding people that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arabs are not terrorists. The good news is that most people are no doubt following the president's lead. The bad news is that there are still more than enough crazies out there to ensure that our fellow citizens will have a hard time as this shadow war against terrorism drags on and on.

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