Equal Right to Fear

In Public Outrage and Official Hunt, Some Face Special Terrors

So many people survived on the kindness of strangers the morning jetliners demolished the World Trade Center. Not one Sikh man, however, although the cries of "terrorist" from the four men who chased him may have driven him faster away from the collapsing buildings. In the nervous days that followed, people were grateful to return home unscathed from the most ordinary of errands—unlike the elderly South Asian couple in Flushing who were pelted from the back with stones when they ventured out to buy groceries. Houses of worship were havens of peace—but not always for the country's 7 million Muslims, when mosques became targets for vandals. The sight of a uniform meant security and hope—not so for the two Bangladeshi commuters forced to open pockets and bags for police inspection on a subway platform in Kew Gardens.

The attacks of September 11 killed without regard to color or faith, yet their aftermath has quickly divided our ranks. Public anger and an official manhunt arose naturally from a collective fear, but for some they portend special terrors—not just bombs or tainted tap water, but hateful violence and even unjust imprisonment. As everyone longs for the freedom from fear, some would settle merely for the right to fear just like everyone else.

Several innocent people in different parts of the country have been killed, apparently in acts of misguided vengeance. South Asians and Middle Easterners abandoned lifelong customs, donning T-shirts and jeans to dodge the hostility. Their children stayed home from schools, which got rougher than usual for them. By the end of last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in D.C. had received over 500 reports of anti-Muslim discrimination, ranging in severity from epithets to murder. "We've received in one week what we would receive in a year," said spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

Checkpoints surrounded the lower Manhattan INS detention center last week.
Photograph by Keith Bedford
Checkpoints surrounded the lower Manhattan INS detention center last week.

Decades of social progress since Pearl Harbor, when the "Japs" were the ethnic group associated with a mammoth attack on the U.S., have made leaders quick to condemn individual acts of xenophobia. George W. Bush toured a mosque and said, "[Muslims] need to be treated with respect. . . . Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America." Slips about diaper-headed guys and Christian crusades notwithstanding, many public leaders echoed the sentiment.

Still, more than one hate-crimes activist said last week, "Talk is cheap." The Justice Department was investigating 55 bias crimes as of last Friday, a spokesman said. A special hot line at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) received 250 calls between last Monday and Friday, said a rep. But "they only want information," said Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Sin Yen Ling about the federal agencies. She recorded over 40 hate incidents between September 11 and 17 and said that, in her several years of advocacy, she had found "[the agencies] don't prosecute. They don't follow up. They don't provide legal counseling." Dan Nelson of the Justice Department said, "We don't discuss the specifics of ongoing investigations," while USCCR spokeswoman Nathea Lee said last Friday, "They're still in the process of putting [complaints] in an Excel spreadsheet."

The response of local law enforcement, advocates said, had ranged from casual to bizarre. When a car containing a group of South Asians was hit with rocks in Hempstead, Long Island, town officers reportedly dismissed the incident as a kid's prank. When a stone shattered the living room window of a Sikh family in Bound Brook, New Jersey, cops saw no bias but suggested a connection to parking disputes on the block. Less offensive, said Ling, was "when you call up the police and the response is, 'I've got officers digging at the World Trade Center.' " But, she said, "this is part of the aftermath, too."

How can authorities ensure communities' safety from bias attacks, some wonder, when they themselves engage in profiling. In fact, the FBI's self-described "twofold" approach with Muslim communities suggests something of a bind: offering protection for a population while at the same time combing it for suspects. "We're torn because obviously we want to catch anybody who might be involved with this and help the FBI," said Hooper, the spokesman for CAIR, which is working with authorities both in the terrorist investigation and in monitoring hate crimes. "But on the other hand," he said, there is resentment in the community over "two guys knocking on your door at seven in the morning asking you about your religious beliefs, about jihad . . . [which] happens quite a bit." Many who call CAIR to report bias crimes are familiar with "knock-and-talks" and feel discriminated against on two fronts, Hooper said.

Officials may soon have little reason to be coy about racial profiling. As the public hears more about how terrorist suspects lived for months in normal society, buying groceries and going to the gym like anyone else, disapproval of racial profiling seems to be fading. The New York Times reported that courts are less likely to curb racial profiling "with law enforcement officials focusing on Arabs in the hunt for terrorists."

Immigrants, undocumented and legal alike, believe they are especially vulnerable prey in that hunt. As of last Friday, federal immigration authorities had detained 80 noncitizens, mostly of Middle Eastern and North African origin, but served only 33 with actual charges—"strictly immigration violations," not criminal charges, according to Justice Department spokesman Nelson. He said, "We can't comment on where they were picked up or where they're being held." Or, he said, on when or whether they would be released to resume their lives in the U.S. or be deported.

But immigrants didn't need official comment to know. Rumors were swirling that anyone found to be without status would promptly be deported, said Nahar Alam, an organizer of South Asian women workers in New York. As the Bush administration lobbied for the power to detain indefinitely any noncitizen no matter his status, green cards seemed likely to lose the power of legitimacy so greatly coveted in immigrant communities, said lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union. Some who planned to stay in the U.S. temporarily—like Middle Easterners here on student visas—left early rather than wait for policy changes. And immigrants across the country have reconfigured their daily lives, trying to work, shop, and visit family while avoiding the hostility of passersby and apprehension by authorities.

The combination of public censure and official scrutiny has "a chilling effect" on immigrants trying to cope with hate crimes, said CAIR's executive director, Nihad Awad. "We get reports by people who are assaulted, and they are afraid to report it to authorities because of their status. We don't force them to go forward. They swallow it and internalize it. People feel they are vulnerable to bias attacks and also to those who should protect them."

And, like everyone, vulnerable also to terrorism, which on September 11 knew no nationality. Immigration officials acknowledged this universality last week when they assured immigrants with missing loved ones that they would not be asked about status if they sought information. Yet when asked whether victims of other kinds of terrors, of bigotry and beatings from neighbors, could expect such consideration, the Justice Department's Nelson said, "That's a question we don't have an answer to." In death, all are equal. Living in fear, apparently, can happen in different degrees.

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