Posted on November 05, 2001 in Washington Watch

Sometimes it feels as if we are living on the edge. The wounds of September 11 are still open, the anthrax scare continues to grow, and now the nation’s leaders are warning of credible threats of new terrorist attacks.

If this were not enough, Congress has just passed and the President has signed into law a new anti-terrorism bill that poses significant threats to civil liberties, and some law enforcement officials are discussing new forms of ethnic-based profiling. Both the bill and the renewed use of profiling would seriously compromise the rights of Arab Americans and Arab residents in the U.S.

Just when we had hoped that we had brought to an end to the backlash that plagued Arab American and American Muslims in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, we are confronted by new threats and reminded that the hate didn’t go away-it just went temporarily underground.

I was reminded of this last week when, for two consecutive nights, I engaged a conservative congressman in a televised debate on CNN on the issue of airport profiling.

This issue is an old one: should airline security personnel be permitted to single out Arabs for special searches and security procedures before allowing them to board planes?

The congressman with whom I was debating was strident in his defense of this practice. He noted that the September 11th terrorists were all Arabs, as were the 120 individuals on the Justice Department’s terrorist watch list. “Of course”, he concluded, “we should single out Arabs.”

I made clear my disagreement, noting that the practice of racial and ethnic profiling is both discriminatory and bad law enforcement. The job of law enforcement, I stated, was to secure the plane and all materials that are placed on the plane. If procedures are followed-the pilot’s cabin is locked, all baggage is inspected, passengers are searched for weapons and an armed sky marshall is on board-then there should be no need to single out or humiliate any individual group of passengers.

Because there has been a focus on Arab passengers, many mistakes have been made and many innocent people have been victimized. I noted the example of a Republican congressman, an Arab American, who only three weeks ago had been denied access to a flight because of his last name. I also gave other recent incidents of discrimination resulting from profiling: two instances where pilots refused to fly with passengers named Mohammed in first class; and two separate cases where Hispanics and South Asians were removed from flights because they were thought to be Arabs.

In each of the above cases and many others, ethnic-based profiling has proved to be ineffective, discriminatory and hurtful.

Can ethnicity legitimately be part of a profile? Of course it can. But in too many cases, it has been used as the only category in the profile, and this is when profiling is wrong.

What troubled me was not the stridency of the congressman, but the flood of hate-filled emails I received during the two days of the debate. I was called a “traitor” and a “terrorist.” I was told to go back to my country (which happens to be the U.S., since I was born here), and I was derided as a “hater of America.”

When, at the same time, a number of major US newspapers ran a story quoting me suggesting that it would be advisable for the U.S. to consult with its Arab and Muslim allies before deciding to continue its bombing of Afghanistan during Ramadan, more hate mail poured into my office.

What both of these episodes taught me was that while incidences of hate crimes have died down, the hate is still there-ready to rear its head at the slightest provocation.

I feared that I had been premature in assuming that the backlash had receded.

Another issue, even more dangerous than the backlash, is the recent behavior and the rhetoric of federal law enforcement agencies. The Attorney General has twice spoken about his intention to arrest terrorist supporters. According to law enforcement officials, the number of those “arrested or detained” is now over 1,100 and growing rapidly each day.

The new anti-terrorism act gives law enforcement unprecedented, and I fear, dangerous new powers to:

  • arrest and detain suspects for indefinite periods of time, without traditional protection of due process (i.e., no evidence needs to be given and no right to defense);

  • conduct secret searches, and

  • conduct wiretaps “without probable cause.”

The result of all of this has been the growing number of arrests. What is both unclear and troubling is “who are the 1,100?” and “why are they being held?” I directly asked these questions to the Attorney General, urging him to provide Americans with more details. Many civil libertarians are concerned that the very large majority of those detained have nothing to do with the terrorism investigation. Most, we believe, are simply individuals caught up in the web of the very large net cast by law enforcement. Some might be guilty only of visa overstays, while others are simply being held, with no charges, waiting to be investigated.

My fears where not calmed when the Attorney General spoke last week about this investigation and noted:

    “Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa-even by one day-we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible…In the war on terror, this Department of Justice will arrest and detain any suspected terrorist who has violated the law. Our single objective is to prevent terrorist attacks by taking suspected terrorists off the street. If suspects are found not to have links to terrorism or not to have violated the law, they are released. But terrorists who are in violation of the law will be convicted, in some cases deported, and in all cases prevented from doing further harm to Americans.”

By conflating visa violators with terrorist suspects and failing to distinguish between the two, the impression has been created that they may be one and the same.

What is especially troubling here is that after six weeks of telling Americans that they should not treat all Arabs and Muslims as suspects, the practices of profiling and massive detentions are sending the exact opposite message.

Of course, I hasten to add here my observation of a few weeks back when I noted how angry I was at the terrorists who committed the September 11 atrocities, and those who still may be in the U.S. intending to commit more heinous acts of murder. It is they who have created the fear and put all of us at risk. But having said this, it is of critical importance to note that we must not allow law enforcement to fall into the trap of victimizing a segment of the Arab American community as they attempt to ferret out a small group of evildoers.

We are in a dangerous period. And this situation may become worse before it gets better. Arab Americans still have great respect for the enormous goodwill of the large majority of our fellow Americans. But we face a difficult challenge. We must continue to make clear our absolute abhorrence of terrorism. We must, at same time, fight to defend our constitutionally-protected rights against the continuing dangers of backlash that can occur when we raise our voices to object to bad policies that we know threaten to weaken our country, both at home and abroad.

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