September 11. After an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg, where I had attended the World Conference Against Racism, I was seated in a San Francisco-bound United Airlines jet plane at JFK International Airport in New York, when the captain announced that a hijacked plane had been crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC).
Our flight was canceled and as we started to disembark, too stunned to believe what we had just been told, I overheard several white men ahead of me and across the aisle, angrily spewing hate talk. One loudly declared: “We should nuke the Arab bastards who did this!”
Moments later, we heard that another hijacked plane, this time a United flight, had been crashed into the second WTC tower. Even as crew members began to sob and console each other, some of the passengers, mostly men, continued to spew out racist and xenophobic epithets.
We were asked to vacate the airport for security reasons. Before retrieving my bags, I walked over to a nearby bar where customers who had been enjoying their pre-flight drinks, were now engrossed in the television replay of the images of the airplane crashing into the WTC tower. From the conversations among the people present and the television commentary, I gathered that the media was already honing the message that some freedoms might have to be sacrificed in order to protect us from “terrorists.”
In this climate of escalating intolerance, I had no confidence that I would be able to board an airplane without harassment. So, I decided to drive home in a rental car with a colleague who was also returning from the conference in South Africa. We spent the next five days on the road, listening to a variety of radio talk shows that unanimously spewed hate.
Listening to Rush Limbaugh on my cross-country drive, I actually found myself agreeing–perhaps for the first and last time in my life–with his assertion that the best weapon against terrorism was to expand, not sacrifice our freedoms.
Within a matter of days, I felt the anti-immigrant bias in the media had metamorphosed to a point where commentators, news anchors, and public affairs pundits alike had made the words “Arab” and “Muslim” synonymous with “terrorist.”
Racist anti-immigrant policies, formerly considered questionable, were now being proposed with ease. And despite President Bush’s mantra-like assertion that the newly declared war against terrorism was not a war against Islam, the Arabs, or the Afghanis, racist attacks in community after community kept growing. Racism and its victims were being rendered invisible in a new way.
In Disturbing Remains, a collection of essays that explores the transformation of traumatic events into social memory and official history, editors Michael S. Roth and Charles G. Salas explain that, “It is through the extreme that the normal is revealed.” Undoubtedly, September 11 represents just such an extreme through which the “normal” attitudes towards immigrants, especially “illegal” or undocumented immigrants, is revealed. Arabs, Arab Americans, and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent are directly or indirectly equated with terrorism and terrorists. In other words, they are the enemy, pure and simple.
Makani Themba-Nixon, author and director of the Praxis Project, a policy advocacy center based in Columbia, Maryland, cites a CNN broadcast on the day after the bombing as an example of this: “Early morning anchors, doing a segment on why America is hated by others, spoke of ‘Why Muslims hate us,’ and generally disparaged Islam. An hour later, the female anchor (who was the most rabid during the first segment) was careful to qualify her comments [as applying] to ‘some Muslims,’ without any apology for her previous statements. So now, there are guys riding around in pick-up trucks, hurting everyone they think looks ‘Arab,’ and defacing mosques. They think it’s their patriotic duty.”
Cal Thomas, in The Arizona Republic, takes the immigrant-bashing a step further in his column of October 30. “A bigger threat than anthrax is the huge number of illegal aliens in this country; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 8 million of them…. [T]he Bush Administration should order a massive roundup, deporting illegals to their countries of origin…. deporting those who don’t belong here will have the immediate benefit of ridding us of some terrorists and their cells.”
Barely covered in the mainstream media are the many stories about men in turbans and women in veils who were being spat upon and cursed at in New York City streets. A white man in Queens tried to run over a Muslim woman with his car, screaming, “This is for America!” Another rammed his car at eighty-miles-an-hour into a mosque. In Arizona, a Sikh man was shot to death, in Reedley, California, a Yemeni convenience storeowner was gunned down, and in Southern California, several white men beat up a Chicano, thinking he was Iranian. Muslim and other immigrant women and men in New York stayed away from work for weeks, fearing for their lives.
Middle Eastern and South Asian air travelers–whether businessmen, elders, students, or tourists–have been pulled off airplanes even after having passed all security checks. Congressman Darrell Issa, a grandson of Lebanese immigrants, on his way to the Middle East as part of a Congressional commission, was not allowed to board an Air France flight to Paris. Arab American, Sikh, and other groups monitoring hate violence have recorded over 600 incidents in the weeks following September 11.
According to Themba-Nixon: “CNN has been bad–incomplete stories, weak analysis, jingoistic coverage–but Fox News is the worst. They are the most Orwellian with their rolling stream of text that accompanies the broadcast. Both the text and the reporting is reinforcing the worst stereotyping. They trivialize the loss of life among people of color [both] as victims of domestic terror [and] as casualties in the attack against Afghanistan.
“The lack of coverage of these crimes also creates a permissive atmosphere. It’s only a logical extension of the pre-bombing coverage that focused on when [the] bombs would drop–but didn’t question if it made sense … or why they should [bomb].”
Both conservative and liberal pundits and op-ed writers are redefining and sanitizing racial profiling in the name of safety, patriotic duty, and national security. While conservatives view it as a corollary to winning the “war against terrorism,” liberals, ironically, consider it an acceptable tradeoff against the erosion of rights. For example, William Safire, conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, alerts readers to the Bush Administration’s “seizing dictatorial power” with its new laws, but believes, “An ethnic dragnet rounding up visa-skippers or questioning foreign students, if short-term, is borderline tolerable.” (November 15, 2001)
Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s biographer, takes racial profiling even further in a long-winded commentary in The Wall Street Journal of October 19. She imagines herself fitting a terrorist profile: “Everywhere I went people would notice me and give me hard looks and watch what I was doing. I would feel terrible about this. But you know what else I’d do? I’d suck it up. I’d understand. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d get it, and I’d accept it…. And you know, I don’t think that’s asking too much.”
Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.
“Terror-related arrests soar,” proclaimed USA Today, in its November 1 issue, reporting that almost 1,200 persons had been detained, and that authorities were “using immigration violations to prevent possible terrorism rather than for simply rounding up suspects in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.” Fewer than a dozen of those detained are considered suspects or material witnesses. The overwhelming majority are being held on minor immigration violations and all of them are of Middle Eastern descent. Now, some 5,000 Arab men in the 18-35 age group, who came to the U.S. over the last two years, have been asked to “voluntarily” submit to FBI questioning. In one sign of common sense returning to public discourse, Portland, Oregon’s police department said that they would refuse to cooperate with the FBI because state law prohibits questioning of immigrants–or for that matter, citizens–not suspected of wrongdoing. Some other police departments have followed Portland’s lead.
In the New York Post opinion pages of November 12, Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, rebuts President Bush’s various positive statements about U.S. Muslims, declaring unequivocally that, “The Muslim population is not like any other, for it harbors a substantial body–one many times larger than the agents of Osama bin Laden–who have worrisome aspirations for the United States…. Although not responsible for the atrocities in September, these people share important goals with the suicide hijackers: Both despise the United States and ultimately wish to transform it into a Muslim country.” He ends his xenophobic diatribe with an appeal for the defense of “the existing order–religious freedom, secularism, women’s rights…” while completely ignoring the rights of the immigrants, the Latinos, the Asians, the Arabs, the Muslims, and the Sikhs, to religious freedom, to freedom of association and expression, to be free from unlawful detention, and to due process, which are daily being violated.
In “Covering Islam,” Edward Said’s landmark examination of the media’s treatment of Islam published in 1981, he writes: “Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.”
Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, veteran Chicana activist-writer and journalist, says, “On one level, post-September 11 racism is clearly linked to the pre-September 11 racism. But now there is a new level of repression, which is fascist-like and is not just about race.”
A new malaise has, indeed, infected the U.S. body politic, where the war against terrorism and racism feed on each other. There is a renewed, invigorated racism and racialization of politics taking place and it is both acceptable, and patriotic: us vs. them.
In truth, this was the United States before September 11 for the majority of people considered “immigrant,” especially the undocumented. When you go to work, you don’t know if you’ll return home unharmed, or at all. You have fear of public places, especially when you are around people who are different from you and who you feel you can’t trust. You are subject to random police stops, searches, and may even be asked to provide proof of identity. You fear for your children’s lives, and each time you leave home, wonder if it might be the last time you’ll see them. You fear for your loved ones, especially when you know they are traveling. Since September 11, these feelings and experiences have extended beyond their usual domain. So, now everyone should know what it feels like to be an undocumented immigrant. Yet, we are led to believe that only Americans (read white Americans), feel insecure. What is unchanged since September 11 is that immigrant communities are still being left out of the picture–except when it comes to attributing blame.
Arnoldo Garcia works for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, heading up its Project on the World Conference against Racism. He is also the editor of their newsmagazine, Network News. www.nnirr.org for more information on immigrants and post-September 11 developments.