Monday, April 18, 2011

2001: Safety First!

Written one week after 9/11:

It took nearly a week for the leader of the free world to speak out against vigilante reprisals for the 9/11 attacks - a week in which there were over 200 hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as lots of people who happened to look the part.

 It would have been helpful to have heard this sort of thing the night of the first address from the Oval Office; I was hoping against hope for it. Analogies to Pearl Harbor had abounded all day long; it could have been made clear from the start that we would not repeat the shameful episode in which Americans of Japanese descent were herded into internment camps. Many of these recent hate crimes could have been prevented had someone in the executive branch shown a little leadership. Exactly the same thing happened during the Gulf War, so it's not as if this ugliness was unexpected.

 Someone who is very dear to me had the immediate reaction, that first day, that "all Arabs" should be deported. Within a few days, she had modified that to "all recent Arab immigrants from suspect countries" - which let Casey Kasem, Donna Shalala and Doug Flutie off the hook, along with about 3 million others. I gather some Democrats were calling for Ralph Nader to be deported even before the bombings, but that's another story.

 Still, millions of Americans had the same reaction as my loved one, and many harbored far nastier sentiments. On Saturday morning, NPR's Weekend Edition aired the views of a man from Portland who insisted that all Arabs and Muslims should be compelled to turn themselves in to the FBI for interrogation, and if they weren't "with us" (which, presumably, they would freely admit to federal officials) they should be "exterminated, as brutally as they exterminated us."

 Well, you can't reason with that kind of blind hatred. But unfortunately, what that extreme view has in common with the more nuanced reaction held by a large chunk of the population is the propensity to judge a group of people as a whole, based on their religion or national origin. There's a word for that, and it's called racism. I'm sure my otherwise sweet relative doesn't think of herself as a racist, and neither do many of the others who feel like she does.

 In fact, "racist" is just another word that defines people as part of a group. I think she had a racist opinion, as have we all at one point or another. And unlike those taking potshots at anyone in a turban, I think she can be reasoned with. Maybe somebody you love holds similar views. So let's talk it out with them.

For some of us it goes without saying, and for others it doesn't, so pass it along: not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. Arabs can be Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, animists, or any religion on God's green earth. And while the majority of Arabs are Muslims, the majority of Arab Americans are Christians, and unlikely to sign on to any cause based on a demented misreading of the Koran.

 Likewise, of the 1.2 billion Muslims on the planet, only 12 percent are Arabs. Muslims are all over the world, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Southeast Asia and in India. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in all the Arab countries combined. If you'll recall, Muslims are the majority in Bosnia and Kosovo, where they are as likely to look like Tom Cruise as Yasir Arafat. And there are 6 million Muslims in the US; nearly a quarter of them were born here. In fact, our country hosts as many followers of Islam as of Judaism.

Doubtless that information would be useful to those roughing up Sikhs and Druze and even Italians. Hey: the folks you're looking for could just as easily look like Chris Rock. Or Jerry Seinfeld. Or Whitney Houston, for that matter. So let's all take a deep breath. Perhaps we should just let the professionals handle this.

But my kin, based on a fear of how easily terrorists were able to blend into a free society, wants the professionals to deport all recent immigrants, just to be on the safe side. Once they're checked out, of course, they could come back. There are a couple of problems with this approach.

 The first is that we have a tradition of due process in this country, one of our proudest freedoms, which means that people can't be arrested or prosecuted - or deported - without just cause. And simply being an Arab isn't good enough. Not even being a recent Arab immigrant; it stands to reason that the vast majority of such people are here because they'd rather live in America than the land they came from. That's how a lot of us got here, too. Kicking out our new neighbors because they came from a land we fear isn't teaching very good lessons about what kind of country this is.

 Maybe that's not enough to convince some people. We're all living with a great deal more fear than we were last month. But mass deportations aren't going to make us any safer, especially if we concentrate on the "suspect countries" like Iraq, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, and so on. Because, as it turns out, most of the 9/11 terrorists came from US allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries like to cut business deals with our oil companies and other such folks. Booting out all their recent arrivals won't be too helpful in forming an international coalition to fight terrorism.

 Not only that, but reports indicate that many of the 9/11 hijackers had been in the United States for several years. That means we'd have to go back to Plan A, putting Nader and Muhammad Ali and the millions of others on a slow boat to Bahrain. This would necessarily entail taking people away from their homes, families, jobs, friends, and the country they worked so hard to get to.

 But if safety trumps civil liberties, or even international relations, consider this: Any group that can infiltrate nineteen trained paramilitaries through airport security is certainly capable of finding them forged passports from even friendlier nations. So sending all the Arabs and all the Muslims back to their last known addresses isn't going to make us any safer - to the contrary, it'll give us a false sense of security.

 Besides, if we're going to expel entire populations because they come from countries whose people are honked off at us, it's going to be an awfully long list. Do we deport the Vietnamese? The Salvadorans? The Serbs? Once we run down the list, quite a few of us will end up back in our country of origin, and none of us will be any safer for it. In fact, I dare say we may have stirred up a bit of new resentment by then.

The problem - the really scary problem about the mess we're in - is that there really isn't a strictly military solution that will make us live happily ever after. And we will never again have the sense of invulnerability that we enjoyed for the past 200 years or so. The best way to prevent future acts of terror is to work for a more just world - to work for a foreign policy that isn't based on resource extraction from distant lands at the expense of the people who live there. If we want less terrorism, we need to remove the despair in which it thrives. I grant you, that'll be a whole lot harder than simply kicking out the foreigners - or shooting them at random. But I guarantee you it'll make your grandchildren safer.

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