It is still too early to know many firm details about Army Major Nidal Hasan's attack on fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood yesterday. It is not too early, though, for anti-Muslim sentiments to be stirred up.
This singular attack has become a Rorschach test of projected motives and fears of domestic terrorism. The Arab American Institute, an advocacy organization for the Arab American community, is bracing for backlash with their carefully worded homepage message today, which emphasizes that thousands of Arab and Muslim Americans serve in the military and have put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vitriolic spew in countless internet comments and blog posts demonstrate that they are right to be concerned. Such reminders as the AAI offers will probably go unheeded by fearful, xenophobic Americans looking for a dog to kick.
We have been reaping this bitter harvest most notably since 9/11: persons with Arabic-sounding surnames are pulled aside in disproportionate numbers for security checks in airports, and profiled in other ways by law enforcement agencies. Arab Americans report a higher incidence of harassment and assault because of their ethnicity since that date. These hate crimes occur even if the person is not Muslim. In fact, only 24% of Arab Americans are Muslim; the vast majority are Christian, but this non-evident fact does not trump the obvious ethnicity of a foreign-sounding name or cast of features. That is sufficient to make this population of over 3.5 million Americans into a target for persons who think terrorism can be predicted on the basis of a person's appearance or ethnicity.
Real Threat Levels?
Some fear-stricken people and bigots have claimed it is "more likely" we will suffer attack by people who are from the Middle East, since we are at war over there and that is the home of the 9/11 terrorists. Yet in the violent attacks and mass shootings that have occured here since 9/11, none have been acts of terrorism in the sense of "kill random Americans and create fear to send a message in support of a cause."
We've had various unbalanced shooters attack students in such places as Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, two African American snipers on a killing spree taking advantage of post-9/11 tension to terrorize people, although they were sociopathic killers not literal terrorists. A quick google scan shows too many mass attacks to list here. We have no lack of tragic killing sprees in this country.
In the realm of real terrorists, the Ft. Dix Six did not actually do any shooting before they were arrested for their plan to infiltrate an army base and kill soldiers in 2007. Just as virulent and less well covered in the media was the plot by four African American men to "bring death to Jews" by blowing up synagogues in New York this May. That plot, too, remained only a plot. Likewise neutered was a wannabe Dallas bomber snagged in an FBI sting this October. In fact, a string of arrests for actual terrorism plots has happened in 2009, if anything demonstrating that our investigation and enforcement efforts are succeeding.
Mass attacks that have resulted in deaths since 9/11 have been carried out by sociopaths and the psychologically unwell, not jihadists executing a plan in the name of a larger goal. Shootings like this at Ft Hood are dramatic and tragic. They leave us on edge. But why are so many so quick to cry "terrorism"? It is not merely because we have collectively been waiting for the other shoe to drop since 9/11: it is specifically because of Hasan's ethnicity and his religion.
Unbalanced Perception of Ethnicities
Since Hasan has survived the gunshots that ended his shooting spree, we are likely to discover his true motives for the attack. If it is a case of another highly stressed person going postal - shocking as it is every time, well, we've seen this before. If there is ideology and religious fanaticism involved, that will be a different conversation, but then, neither ideology nor fanaticism is limited to Arab Americans, or the 24% of them who are Muslim Americans. Timothy McVeigh already demonstrated that, yet oddly there was no widespread call to profile, investigate and harass Catholics.
We are not new to this mindset. "Hours after [McVeigh's] 1995 bombing, rumors began spreading that the crime had been carried out by Muslim terrorists." There is simply no generalized guilt-by-association when the attackers look like "us". In fact, the first place we look for the guilty party is to the Other: the ones who do not look or (we think) act like "us".
That is the quick way to jump off the pre-judgment cliff, and it's never a soft landing when we do so.
Let's watch out for over-hyped speculation until more is known and confirmed. Media in the immediate aftermath of a chaotic event is always filled with distortions, speculations, and unsubstantiated claims from anonymous sources. One news report claimed Hasan was "handing out Korans" before he went to the base (hmmmm, suspicious act, that). Turns out that is an exaggeration of his neighbor's statement that he was giving away some stuff from his apartment on the eve of being deployed, and he gave her a Koran. Twist words just a hair, and the terrorism conspiracy theorists are off and running.
Knee-Jerk Reactions: Don't Let Them Rule Us
Arab Americans are mostly Christian, and a huge number of them have names you will never recognize as Arab because of the American side of their heritage. Take me: I'm half Lebanese. If I signed off with my mother's name of Hakeem here, I'd be more of a target for bigots, I have no doubt. I know some Arab Americans who conceal their heritage to avoid exactly such problems.
Is that the country we want to be living in? Where we follow a boneheaded calculus that goes, "religious foreigners hurt us, you're foreign (and probably of that religion), therefore you're to be distrusted because you might hurt us"? A land where ethnic and religious difference is regarded with suspicion and hatred, reminiscent of places like Bosnia? That's not the America I served in the Army to defend.
Fears and paranoia are toxic and erode everything we're about. Glenn Greenwald critiques this "media orgy of rumors, speculation, and falsehoods," rightly noting that people will come to snap conclusions and then not listen to new facts any more after the urgency of the story fades. Based on that constructed reality - one based not on facts, but fear and prejudice - anti-social and violent actions follow.
It doesn't have to be that way. We need to get a handle on these unthinking reactions before bin Laden and his lap dogs can proudly proclaim, "Mission Accomplished." Though I wouldn't be surprised if they're doing that happy dance already.
1. Homepage text from the Arab American Institute today:
We at the Arab American Institute are horrified by this tragic and senseless act of violence committed by a disturbed individual. We grieve with the families of those who died and those who were wounded. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.
Thousands of Arab Americans and American Muslims serve honorably everyday in all four branches of the U.S. military and in the National Guard. Additionally, many of our sons and daughters have willingly stepped forward to fulfill their duty with their fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations around the globe. Indeed, many are today currently deployed in both countries, honorably serving each and every day.
Please contact your local Red Cross and volunteer to give blood. If you are looking for a loved one from Ft. Hood, please contact the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” program at https://disastersafe.redcross.org/. You will need the telephone number or address for the person you seek. For more information on how to help through the Red Cross in this crisis: http://redcrosschat.org/2009/11/05/fort-hood-shootings/
For more information about Arab Americans in the military, please visit the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military.
2. To compound this tragedy, he may not be responsible for the whole body count laid at his doorstep. The AP reports that "Officials are not ruling out the possibility that some of the casualties may have been victims of 'friendly fire,' shot by responding military officials."
This post originally appeared at Cogitations.