Posted on April 24, 1995 in Washington Watch
It is one o’clock a.m. and I am on my way to CNN to do an interview on Arab American fears of a backlash in the wake of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.
It has been an exhausting day – one that almost never ended and one I wish had never started. From the moment news of the blast reached us, my office and those of other Arab American groups in Washington were caught in a maelstrom.
Like all Americans, we were outraged by the cowardly attack on our fellow Americans. All day we watched the scope of the tragedy grow. Our sense of loss mixed with our sense of horror.
The media, being what it is in the U.S., covered the Oklahoma City bombing all day. To fill the time, they invited many so-called “experts” and commentators to speculate about the attack. And that’s when the ugly tragedy took a cruel turn for Arab and Muslim Americans.
As early as 11:30 a.m. Eastern time (only 1-1/2 hours after the explosion), former Oklahoma Congressman Dave McCurdy speculated that Muslims or another Middle East group may well have perpetrated the attack. There is, he noted, a large and active Middle Eastern community in Oklahoma (actually untrue: there are roughly 300 Arab American families in the state) and that they are known to support radical causes. Only after saying this did he catch himself – too late of course – and say that “We should not jump to conclusions,” but of course he already had. (A chilling footnote to this is that McCurdy was a finalist for the job of CIA Director in the Clinton Administration.)
Throughout the day this scene repeated itself. When calls from the media asked for my reaction to the killings, I challenged them: “Why are you calling me? What else would my response be but total condemnation of this act which took so many innocent lives.”
Most Arab American and American Muslim groups issued statements condemning the act. I hesitated, and my thinking was simple. Of course we are not supportive of this or any criminal act. But what of those who will immediately speculate when they see such a statement that we (Arab Americans) must somehow be the first to condemn the attack out of guilt or fear of being implicated.
At 8pm, after a number of statements and calls from the rest of the Arab American and Muslim groups, I went to the studio to do my weekly television program, “A Capital View.” Our topic, of course, was the bombing, and my guest was Father Sean McManus, an Irish American leader. His community, like ours, feels the pain and frustration of guilt by implication.
The show has a call-in segment, and Arab Americans from all over the country called in to express their anger and outrage over the attack and the loss of life and their anger at all the “experts” who have implicated our community in this heinous act.
The most poignant calls came from Arab Americans in Oklahoma City. They responded first and foremost as Oklahomans hurt and grieving for their neighbors and friends who were killed and wounded in the attack. “Oklahoma has always been home to us,” they noted with pride.
I reached home at 10pm but the calls continued to come in from the media and other Arab Americans. The former were asking for a reaction, and the latter wanted to discuss what we should do as a community.
And now I’m on my way to CNN to do yet another interview, to say one more time that I condemn the attack and grieve for the loss of life, as if some other reaction might be expected of me. At that studio I will explain one more time that Arab Americans and American Muslims have nothing to do with such criminal acts, and that of course we condemn the attack unequivocally no matter who the perpetrators might be. And to warn the media that it must take responsibility for not speculating too casually.
There are, of course, many lessons to be learned from such a day.
Primary among those lessons is the fact that terrorism is always cruel and stupid. As President Clinton put it, it was “cowardly and evil.” And just as the speculation by “experts” who implicate a community without evidence is racist, terrorism is equally racist. Terrorism takes lives without reason, as if they had no value.
In any and every instance of terrorism, there is no justification for taking the lives of those who end up as victims. The innocent die in part because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But they also die for the simple, racial, reason of who they are.
This is not war. This is racist crime malevolently at work. Arab Muslims worshippers in Hebron were shot to death because they were Arabs, Israelis at bus stops were killed because they are Israeli, and Americans in the World Trade Center were killed because they were Americans.
None of those killed through terrorist acts have committed any crime – indeed, because they are essentially random victims, the terrorists don’t have any real idea of who they are killing. There is no cause to justify such executions.
Baruch Goldstein was known to have complained about a friend of his who was slain by an Arab. But none of the worshippers in the Hebron Mosque were the perpetrators of that act. Goldstein simply killed “Arabs.” Similarly, whatever argument the group which blew up the World Trade Center had with the American government, their victims were innocent of any act against that group. They were simply Americans.
That brings me to my next point. Just as there are no authentic connections between the legitimate grievances of a people and the act of the terrorist, the act of a terrorist should not in any way diminish the legitimate grievances of a people. There is no real connection between these two things.
To use a concrete example, U.S. postal workers have a long history of grievances based on the difficulty of their jobs. In a number of instances, deranged individual postal workers have gone into their work places and killed their superiors and others who happened to be nearby. Though by no means common, the phrase “disgruntled postal worker” has become a standard description for such individuals. But do such acts in any way diminish the legitimate grievances of postal workers? And, more directly, do the hideous acts of murder by deranged workers do anything to ease the working conditions of the surviving colleagues? The answers are a self-evident “No.”
Terrorism solves nothing. All it does is weaken, in the minds of those who survive, the concern they may have come to feel for the pain of the group which the terrorists purport to represent. That is why terrorism must be universally condemned. It takes innocent lives and brings a heightened sense of danger to everyone on both sides of the line.
This brings me to my final observation. The perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing are still not known, yet speculation is rampant that it was committed by “Middle Easterners” or “Muslims” or “Arabs.” Such speculation is both dangerous and in itself injurious to those it assumes are guilty, as it is both a product of and a contributor to a biased stereotype. But it is also based on the tragic and ugly fact that there are some Arabs and Muslims who have carried out such acts in the names of “Arabism” or “Islam,” just as there are those who, in the names of those causes, continue to make stupid and evil threats to carry out such acts. Such criminals and would-be criminals do their part to feed and create the very bias of which they complain.
I remember observing when the World Trade Center was bombed back in 1993, that, if it was in fact an Arab or Muslim who was responsible for the act, that the victims would extend beyond those killed and wounded in the bombing and those whose lives became subject to fear because of the deed – to the millions of Arab Americans and American Muslims who would have to live with the legacy of the crime.
The criminals in New York have made victims of us all. They are in prison, where they belong. We are in a different kind of prison and we, too, are paying for their crime. They have accomplished nothing but wounding and killing innocent people and handing our political enemies a weapon they can use against us.
Today I reacted with pain and horror like all my fellow Americans; but I, like all Arab Americans and American Muslims, had to take time from grief and outrage to defend our communities. That is wrong. But given the dangerous mix of racism and terrorism, that was how I was forced to spend my day.
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