John Ashcroft’s New America

The Changed Lives of Arabs in the U.S.—And What a Declaration of War Would Really Mean

Ashcroft's proposals in Congress would give the government formal authority to arrest or deport foreigners who belong to non-terrorist groups that in the government's view support a terrorist organization. In addition, Ashcroft wants the power to detain a foreigner by claiming the person is a threat to national security. That would include persons granted political asylum who are currently not subject to deportation. He wants authority to seize e-mail and voice mail. And his legislation would encourage greater cooperation between the CIA and FBI, quite possibly leading to CIA operations inside the U.S., which is currently barred under the law. The new legislation would make it easier for the attorney general to get a search warrant and allow the government to seize now private educational records.

Most people would recoil at the idea of repeating our treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment ran strong. "I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps," said congressman John Rankin. "Damn them! Let's get rid of them now!" In February 1942, Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the army to arrest every one of the 110,000 Japanese living on the West Coast without warrant, indictment, or hearing, and then incarcerated them in concentration camps. Three-quarters of these people were born in America to Japanese parents and were U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court upheld this incarceration on the grounds of military necessity, the logic of which went roughly like this: Some of the Japanese on the West Coast are good, some are bad. Since we can't very well pick out the bad ones, let's incarcerate the whole lot. It has only been in recent years that the U.S. government realized this forced imprisonment was wrong, and paid reparations to families of the people sent away.

Locking up more than 7 million American Muslims is a tall order. But the racial profiling that allows the government to keep tabs on this now suspect group may be the modern equivalent of a concentration camp.

Hollywood and pulp fiction have prepared us to view Arab Americans and Muslims as vile beasts—dirty, smelly people driven by an insane religion to commit bestial acts. In airplane, train, and bus waiting rooms, people scan the faces of their fellow passengers for anyone resembling the Muslim stereotype. In Minneapolis, a posse of passengers forced a Northwest Airlines plane to remove four suspicious (i.e., Arab-looking) passengers for fear they were terrorists. At Dulles Airport over the weekend, a flight crew refused to fly until a Saudi Arabian pilot was removed from the plane. He was flying home as a passenger because the Saudi airline had been grounded. (One suspects the crew might have also booted Najeeb E. Halaby, John F. Kennedy's Lebanese American FAA administrator and onetime president of Pan Am.)

In a log kept by the Arab American Institute, 300 anti-Arab incidents were cataloged in the U.S. as of last weekend. Some examples:

A Sikh was shot to death in Phoenix. Students in Palmdale, California, stayed home when they discovered their names on a list stating the terrorist act would be avenged by a "massacre." A man in San Francisco approached a 26-year-old Indian man peaceably walking up the street with a friend, called him a "dirty Arab," and punched both men in the face, then stabbed the friend, who is now in critical condition. An Egyptian store owner in San Gabriel was shot to death. People hurled bags of blood with Osama bin Laden's name on them at a San Francisco law office, apparently thinking it was a mosque. A bomb exploded outside an Islamic center in San Diego, forcing it to be evacuated. Men threatened to burn down Colorado Springs' only mosque. In Chicago, a man with a two-foot machete attacked a gas station attendant he thought was an Arab. In Maryland, two adjoining buildings owned by a Palestinian were burned down. In Massachusetts, people tossed softballs inscribed with "God Bless America" through the window of a café owned by a Greek American. Others lobbed a Molotov cocktail onto the roof of a convenience store, to "get those Arabs for what they did to us." In Boston's Back Bay, a group of men stabbed a Saudi Arabian student at Boston University as he left a nightclub. Meanwhile in New Jersey, carloads of people drove through Arab neighborhoods yelling, "We're going to bomb you when you sleep." A Muslim working gas pumps in New Jersey was punched in the face by a motorist. Also in New Jersey, signs reading "Leave town" were posted on Indian businesses, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a Hindu temple. In New York, a 75-year-old man tried to run down a Pakistani woman in a parking lot at a shopping mall, then followed her into a store, threatening to kill her for "destroying my country." An off-duty Philadelphia cop pulled a gun on a Pakistani convenience store owner.

The incidents get even weirder: The Montana highway patrol pulled over a caravan of "Arab-appearing" people after a caller to 911 reported a group of 15 to 20 people with olive-colored skin driving five cars and talking to one another on walkie-talkies. When they were pulled over, it was learned they were a group of Puerto Ricans on their way to start a church in Oregon. On the governmental level, says attorney Jabara, FBI agents have infiltrated mosques in an effort to pick up idle but revealing chatter.

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