A Week of Complex Emotions

James Zogby’s Column

This was a dramatic week. A week in which we experienced a range of powerful emotions.

Horror. As long as I live I will never forget the images of Tuesday’s attacks. The planes slicing through the walls of the World Trade Center, bodies jumping from the buildings, the terror and shock of thousands running through the streets and, finally, the two towers collapsing into a pile of dust and debris and disappearing forever.

Throughout the ordeal, I sat, like tens of millions, transfixed and horrified. I imagined the terror of those on the planes as their fate became clear, the fear of the thousands trapped in the burning buildings, and the shock that must have come in the face of imminent death as the towers crumbled.

Grief. After the numbness of horror came grief and mourning. As the enormity of this tragedy sank in, we began to assess the magnitude of the loss. On one hand, it was difficult to calculate. But on a personal level it was all too real. Nightly we watched individual family members holding pictures of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. Each loss was real and represents the end of a universe. There was no way to add up all of those losses-it has become unthinkable.

For me, too, this is personal. I had been to the towers. My Institute was planning to open a New York office there. I know people, including many Arab Americans who had offices in the buildings. I still do not know if they survived or if they are gone.

Fear. Within hours of the initial attacks came the fear of a backlash. The negative stereotypes and deep-seated prejudices about Arab and Muslims felt by some were bound to manifest themselves against Arab Americans and American Muslims.

It had happened before, we knew it would come again.

Others were more general.

We called the police who agreed with our concerns and offered protection. For the past week, we have had police protection at our offices.

Reports coming from across the United States were frightening. There have been violent attacks, threats, other assorted acts of hate.

All of this has placed Arab Americans in a difficult position. As Americans and human beings we are in mourning. But as the attacks occur, fear pulls us away from mourning and creates a deep inner conflict.

Resolve. It was this that caused us to fight back. We called on the Administration to respond against the hate, and took our appeal to the media as well.

Not only did we make our appeal on a national level, but we also took it to grassroots Americans using our network of Arab Americans across the United States. In Washington and elsewhere, Arab Americans reached out for help seeking statements from elected officials, law enforcement and civic organizations. We were determined that our community not be left vulnerable and afraid and easy prey for bigots.

Gratified. The response was immediate and overwhelming. The media came first. During the past few days I have had multiple television appearances on every network. I’ve done radio shows and interviews in dozens of newspapers. Others in my office and other Arab American organizations have done the same. Through these appearances we were able to tell Americans who we are and how we, as Americans, grieve for the loss of life of our fellow citizens. We were also able to decry the bigots’ rush to judgment and their assignment of collective guilt to Arab Americans.

Within hours, messages of support began to pour into our offices. The Department of Justice (DOJ) called us to an emergency meeting with the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and his staff. We had requested that the DOJ meet with us, issue a statement condemning hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims and set up a mechanism to prosecute those who threaten our community. They agreed to all of our requests. One hour later the Attorney General spoke:

Finally, our nation calls on us in times like this to be at our best. If we are to prevail in difficult times like this, we must be at our best. Since Tuesday, the Justice Department has received reports of violence and threats of violence against Arab-Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. We must not descend to the level of those who perpetrated Tuesday’s violence by targeting individuals based on race, religion or national origin.

Such reports of violence and threats are in direct opposition to the very principles and laws for which the United States of America stands, and such reports of violence and threats of violence will not be tolerated.

The Civil Rights Division and the FBI have already begun to investigate possible violations with the intent to quickly prosecute in order to set an example of enforcement.

This was Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon I had received personal calls and messages from Senators Ted Kennedy, Debbie Stabenow, John Edwards, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin and Joe Lieberman. Numerous members of Congress also called, as did leaders of ethnic organizations from across the American spectrum (Italians, Irish, Hispanics, Portuguese, African Americans, Asians, etc.). Prominent Republican leaders like Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Congressman Jack Kemp and Grover Norquist also contacted me and acted to defend Arab Americans and American Muslim rights. And the flood of emails shifted in direction. For every five hate letters I receive, I now receive more than one-hundred positive and supportive messages.

We have been overwhelmed by the heartfelt support. And gratified by the expressions of concern for our safety and security. It was as if all of these leaders took time from their mourning to reach out to Arab Americans and American Muslims, to embrace us and protect us so that we too could mourn as Americans.

This message was clear. We are all Americans and our nation’s leaders will not allow a minority of bigots to divide Arab Americans from the rest of the U.S. body politic.

Complex. As I now look back at the week I remain overwhelmed. All of the emotions I described now coexist in a complex mix. I’m still horrified by the enormity of the terror that struck on September 11. I am grieving for the loss of so many lives, especially as I watch the survivors, lost and confused and tragic. And I am still frightened because I know that, even with the support we’ve received, hatred remains and it will continue to rear its ugly head. I also know that the most vulnerable members of our community, our most recent immigrants, are at great risk and are afraid for their security. Because of this, we remain resolved to fight the bigots and to defend our rights and the rights of all who are threatened.

But at the end of the week, what comes through as well, is the awareness that through all of this tragedy and horror, Arab Americans can say that we are, in fact, recognized and respected and our rights will be defended. We, with the rest of our follow Americans, stand against the scourge of terror and the threat of bigotry. And despite the enormous tragedy that terrorists brought to our nation’s doorstep we will continue in our efforts to make America better and to build greater understanding between our country, America, and the lands of our origins in the Arab world.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.