A proposed advertising campaign by a group urging the US to adopt more stringent national requirements for individuals seeking driver’s licenses has become enmeshed in controversy this week. Instead of making their case directly, using honest arguments, the group, calling itself the “Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License” exploited fear using misleading, irresponsible and bigoted scare tactics.
The centerpiece of their effort, as announced on their website, was to be a billboard campaign featuring a man shrouded in a Kaffiya holding a grenade in one hand, and a driver’s license in the other. In the background, presumably for effect, were Arabic letters. At the billboard’s center, in bold, appears the campaign’s slogan, “Don’t license terrorists.”
Arab Americans mounted a vigorous campaign against this effort and I, personally, debated the group’s spokespersons on a number of national television programs. Like demagogues everywhere, their arguments were exaggerated distortions of reality. On one occasion, for example, the group’s head justified their effort claiming that the nineteen 9/11 terrorists had 45 drivers licenses, many of them illegally obtained. Two days later, another spokesperson for the group told me that the 9/11 terrorists had over 60 drivers licenses. The reality: according to the 9/11 commission report, the 19 terrorists had 13 driver’s licenses, and they were legally obtained.
In one instance, proponents for this driver’s license campaign denounced me and other Arab American opponents of their effort, saying that we were “providing cover for terrorists.”
Questions I received on live television and radio call-in programs, e-mails sent to my office and messages posted on an AOL message board, make it clear that their fear mongering worked with some segments of the population.
Here’s a sampling:
“If the Arabs don’t like the billboard here in America, they can go home,”
“Only legal US Citizens should be able to get driver’s licenses.”
“If they are complaining about a single billboard, I suggest looking into their ties to the terrorists,”
“Don’t stand up for your civil rights as an American, because we don’t think you belong here. Just get on the boat or a camel or whatever it is you people ride on, and go to wherever your parents were born.”
This is exactly the kind of response fear and scapegoating generates.
But take a step back and look more closely at the campaign and its real goal, and the picture becomes clearer. In fact, for several years now, long before 9/11, there has been a national effort to create a national identification card for US citizens. The target of this campaign has been the millions of undocumented workers in the US, largely from Mexico and Central America, who have come to the US seeking employment and a better life. Performing jobs that most citizens will not do, this group has some support from the business community and are defended by powerful Hispanic organizations (who are now the largest minority group in the US) and other pro-immigrant organizations. And so directing the national ID campaign against poor Latinos has not succeeded. Using “Arab terrorists” as the scapegoat is, therefore, a tactic that anti-immigrant groups are now using to achieve their goal.
Undocumented workers and not terrorists are, therefore, the real reason behind the national driver’s license (read: national ID) campaign. The hated image of the terrorist serves to exploit fear and insecurity and give their campaign needed momentum.
While some fear has been created, fortunately others have opposed this scapegoating and have mobilized to support our concern. A national letter campaign directed against the effort was cosponsored by scores of ethnic and civil right’s organizations. The billboard company, hired to display their ad announced recently that they would not carry the group’s proposed design. They said, “We flatly rejected this image and any other message that would be of a discriminatory nature.” Even the public relations firm that designed the offensive billboard has backed away from the campaign saying, “When we realized the tone of the campaign, we were no longer interested in representing the company.”
But even with these “little victories”, the danger has not ended. As I noted in my debate with the group, if they wanted to discuss the issue of driver’s licenses in a reasonable way, we could have a debate. But we will not engage in this discussion as long as they persist in utilizing misleading, irresponsible and bigoted slogans.
To date, they still don’t get it. Possibly because they have no reasoned arguments or because fear mongering has gotten them more visibility than they ever had before, they persist. Fear, it appears, is the only arrow they have in their quiver.