I am angry

James Zogby’s Column

I am angry. Very angry. The terrorists who struck on Sept. 11 violated the openness and freedom of my country. They killed thousands of my fellow citizens and they have done incalculable damage to the Arab-American and Muslim American communities.

Each day, the press provides new reports detailing the activities of these evildoers, leading up to Sept. 11. As I read these accounts, I am struck by how sinister it was that these men, armed with such hideous intent, were able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by America and the almost naéve goodwill of so many Americans. They found homes in which to live, schools to train them and they moved about without question. All the while planning their deadly mission.

I found it almost incomprehensible that in the years they prepared to kill thousands they were not moved to question their intended evil by the good that they saw around them everyday. They took advantage of Americans to kill Americans and for that I am angry.

I am angry, as well, because their terrorism has brought so much sorrow and so much loss to so many. Not only did they kill thousands, their act has created a national trauma as well.

Americans have lived through many traumatic events in this media age. The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the explosion of the Challenger, and Oklahoma City are examples, to name a few. As a nation, we have also been gripped by horrific tragedies that have befallen others: the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla, the killing of Mohammed Al Durra, terrorist attacks in Israel and the rape of Bosnia.

In each of these instances, Americans sat riveted to their televisions, transfixed by grotesque images of death playing out before our eyes.

There has been something quite different about this tragedy. This time Americans did not simply suffer for the victims, we suffered with the victims. Possibly because the weapons were ordinary civilian aircraft and the death scene was a place of work, and because the casualties were so many, those of us who watched were affected to our core.

Each of us thought that it could have been any one of us. And in a way it was. People of every nationality, race and faith died. And as we watched in the days that followed and listened to the stories of those who survived, each of us was able to relate to the horror, the loss and the fear. As a nation, we have mourned and been filled with an almost inconsolable sadness. And for that, too, I am angry.

Because almost every American has reacted to this momentous and traumatic event in his or her own unique way, the reactions have been varied. There have been stories of unparalleled bravery. There are also stories of uncommon goodness. But others have reacted out of fear, ignorance and prejudice. And because of that, I am also angry.

For decades, pro-Israel propagandists sought to paint Arabs with the broad stroke of terror. As Arab- Americans, we have been affected. We suffered from negative stereotypes, discrimination and exclusion. Many in my community felt compelled to hide their identity and their heritage. But we fought back. We built institutions, we defended ourselves. We organised and established Arab-Americans as a constituency that defeated prejudice and took its place in the political mainstream.

I recall noting that, when the FBI issued its 15th annual report on domestic terrorism, not one single act of terror had been committed by an Arab on American soil. In fact, I often noted that Arab-Americans had been victims of domestic terrorism, but never its perpetrators. Then came the first World Trade Centre bombing and our enemies had a weapon to use against us. And Arabs had given it to them. It was because of the years of propaganda and prejudice that after the World Trade Centre bombing Arab-Americans suffered a backlash and rush to judgement after Oklahoma City. And now, Sept. 11 has happened and with it another backlash.

While most Americans have turned to Arab-Americans and been extremely supportive, there are bigots who attacked Arab-Americans, American Muslims and even Sikhs who have been assaulted and killed because of their foreign attire. Arab- Americans and Muslim American schoolchildren are afraid to go to school, taxi drivers and storeowners are afraid to work. In a few instances, Arab-Americans have been refused the right to fly because their fellow passengers are afraid to be on a plane with them.

The president has spoken out against this bigotry, as have almost all other public officials. Daily, there are events with the president, congressmen and government agencies to demonstrate solidarity with our communities and to warn against a backlash. And the Department of Justice has been active in organising a national outreach programme to combat hate crimes against Arab- Americans and American Muslims. But serious problems remain.

The tide is turning. And our efforts are paying off. E-mails to our office are now twenty to one supportive of our community. Churches and civic groups are joining Arab-Americans and American Muslims and schools are seeking our help to provide educational materials about Arab- Americans and Islam.

We will continue to fight bigots and we will win. But it was all so unnecessary. This pain and suffering did not have to be. And this fear did not have to be, if the evildoers had not committed the acts of terror on Sept. 11. And for that I am angry.

There are reports that there may be more terrorists planning still more attacks. This has created more fear and more suspicion, putting more Arab-Americans and American Muslims at risk. And so, I say to the terrorists, get out! And to those who may plan to come in the future, stay away – we do not want you! You have done too much evil already. You have killed too many. You have created too much sadness, fear and hatred. And you have done our community immeasurable harm.

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