USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

The Backlash That Almost Wasn't

'Several Arab and Muslim groups in California received threatening phone calls Tuesday in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,' CNN reported shortly after Tuesday's mass murder, continuing:

Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, said 'a lot of Islamic Centers have shut Web sites down because of the amount of hate mail they were getting.' Her organization received two 'hate' calls after the attacks. Elgenaidi said the first caller told her to 'get the hell out of this country. You people have done nothing but ruin this country. You don't belong here. Your religion is vile and evil.'

Threatening phone calls? We should all have such problems.

One of the worst things about a national emergency is that it delivers all public clout into the hands of hawks and patriots, activists and other humorless characters for whom the real enemies are nuance and complexity. In our new national debate - the deft exchange of rhetorical thrust and counterthrust for the soul of America - one trope has surfaced repeatedly: fear of attacks on Arab-Americans and Muslims in the US.

It's a juicy story, a predictable reaction, proof that under our tolerant exteriors, we're a nation of violent yahoos and racist hooligans.

And so far, that hasn't lived up to expectations.

An attempted march on an Illinois mosque. Shots fired in the middle of the night at a deserted mosque in Texas (a more or less monthly occurrence at the movie theater where this reporter worked in high school). Nasty phone calls, off-color Web posts and vague (if vaguely funny) ethnic slurs. It all doesn't quite live up to the fears of nationwide profiling and new Manzanars that all the Pearl Harbor rhetoric and late-night viewings of Ed Zwick's The Siege had led us to expect.

For every report of a pig blood attack, it seems, there are five calls for tolerance and cool heads. George W. Bush cautions about retaliations against 'thousands of Arab Americans who live in New York City, who love their flag just as much [other Americans.]' Bill Clinton appeals to our 'common humanity.' Rep David Bonior condemns the 'hateful prejudice' that 'offends us all.' And one report after another in vokes World War II memories of pogroms and internment in order to warn us against losing our cool.

Meanwhile, the major media, having been burned by the homegrown Oklahoma City bombing, have fallen over themselves with warnings against hasty judgments. (Nobody ever admits it, but for those of us who spend time arguing the cause of Arabs and Muslims, Tim McVeigh was a godsend; no Islamic apologist can go more than two minutes without bringing him into the conversation.)

Sure, self-styled 'veteran journalist' Steven Emerson - who spent years in Babylonian exile after fingering Arabs in Oklahoma City - has been enjoying a quick rehabilitation this week, but if anything, caution has been the name of the game.

Even the urge to accuse Osama bin Laden has been remarkably subdued. About the only complaint you can have is that the rush to judgment passed over other likely suspects such as Leona Helmsley (the Queen of Mean now controls Manhattan's largest building), Mark McGwire (with every missed Major League game, the St. Louis slugger's home run record is less likely to be toppled by Barry Bonds), WTO protestors (obvious reasons) and Canadians.

The pleas for compassion, the chilling reminders that our natures contain darker angels, and the overriding editorial caution may be somewhat overstated, but if repetition serves the purpose of keeping peace in the streets, it all may be worth it. Sometimes the only way to fight a kneejerk reaction is with a kneejerk precaution.

Of course, to get real kneejerk reactions, you have to read the progressive blowhards who, literally before the bodies are cold, have attacked the jingoism they just know must be brimming across the land - and perhaps most presumptiously, pretend to have figured out the motives of the omnicidal maniacs who knocked the buildings down.

An essay by one Rahul Mahajan, asserting that the US is just getting payback for its war against 'nonwhite' people, raises an interesting question: Given that the United States has inflicted more pain for a longer period of time on the nonwhite people of Latin America than Middle Easterners can even conceive, where are all the Salvadoran suicide hijackers? How did our biased media somehow miss all that joyful dancing that broke out in the streets of Havana?

In a similar vein, a 'fearful' Afghan-American named Fariba Nawa wonders 'if Americans know that the rage they are feeling today is what Palestinians and Muslims across the world feel everyday against the American government.' Would that be the pain Muslims felt over the past decade, as the United States expended money and effort beyond calculation in order to protect the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo?

In fact, for a writer who has put quite a bit of energy into dismissing fears of radical Islam and pondering how the Arabs can up their clout and image in America, this business of reporting dirty looks and verbal attacks as widespread hate crimes seems like a bunch of whining. Given the practically limitless horror of the WTC destruction (which undoubtedly claimed the lives of innocent Arabs, Arab-Americans and Mohammadans along with all the others), the complete lack of humanity of the attackers, and the near certainty that once again the culprits and their presumably large support network were Muslims, a state-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing would not be a surprising reaction. That the reaction to date has (knock wood) been limited to some sporadic acts is reason to believe that contemporary Americans are more civilized than we generally give ourselves credit for.

Then again, there's little percentage in reporting coolheadedness. The Islamic Networks Group mentioned above provides a set of media guidelines featuring warnings like: 'The media has never focused on the religious affiliations as such non-Muslim terrorists as Timothy McVeigh, the Columbine killers, or the Unabomber.' That's a reasonable standard, and one we'd be happy to apply if history could furnish a single example of a Jewish or Episcopalian zealot who crashes a passenger jet with infants aboard into a building, killing thousands of civilians in the apparent hope of attaining a place in heaven surrounded by virginal concubines. ING and more prominent groups like the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations might more profitably put their time into building a convincing explanation of why followers of Mohammed have been so inordinately represented in insane acts of violence over the past few decades; appeals to a universal sense of victimization are growing increasingly tired.

Then again, this perpetual sense of embattlement is the life's blood of the many anti-defamation and culturual pride organizations around the country - and the practice certainly did not originate with Muslims. Several times a week I am warned in mailings from the Wiesenthal Center or Edgar Bronfman's World Jewish Congress that global anti-Semitism is at an all-time high. The comical Bill Donohue and his Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights compile an annual index of anti-Catholicism that shows persecution of papists at nearly Elizabethan levels. These groups have a vested interest in portraying an America even worse than it actually is - more bigoted, more ignorant, less tolerant, more prone to ill-informed judgments.

This week, however, the weight of evidence is solidly with the ignorant Americans who spend so much time getting abused for their narrowmindedness. We're the reasonable ones. Whether that reasonableness will hold up, whether it may in fact turn out to be a disadvantage in the all-out war we've apparently been drafted into, remain to be seen.