LIKE EVERYONE else, my initial reaction to the terrorist attacks last Tuesday on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon went beyond shock.
Understandably, now that our shock has turned into acceptance, deep sadness and anger, we want to retaliate against someone. And the patriotism that the attack has generated - with the proliferation of American flags, the singing of "God Bless America," "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful" - from even Park Slope liberals who used to identify such sentiments with middle America (or Bay Ridge) has, for many people, been a surprising and welcome development.
But for me, just as disturbing as the terrorist attacks and the compassion I feel for all of those who perished, is this nation's proposed response. Fury against the terrorists who carried out the attacks is clouding our judgement. First, our elected leaders and their advisers appeared on TV and defiantly vowed a swift and brutal response. At the same time, before they collected any solid evidence against him, they declared that wealthy renegade terrorist Osama bin Laden was the prime suspected backer. Doing so quickly put a face on the tragedy that everyone could vent rage against.
Of course, solid evidence of bin Laden's direct involvement may turn up at any moment. Yet we must not forget that those directly responsible for this tragedy sacrificed their lives along with those of their victims. They had associates who remain behind and we can assume that those associates think the same way they did, meaning that this type of terrorist isn't afraid to die. It is an honor. Killing Osama bin Laden would turn him into their martyr, quite likely rallying them even more.
I almost wish that the investigations were turning up evidence that the perpetrators had just left bin Laden's training camps and somehow entered the United States in recent weeks. That way the disturbing incidents of backlash against innocent Arab Americans would be minimized. And all the talk of retaliation would be couched in some degree of logic. But the fact is the investigation of the terrorists is turning up information that has meant just the opposite for our hardworking, innocent citizens of Arab descent. It appears that the terrorists had been living here for quite some time. It appears that at least some of those who housed them and fed them and trained them - the very people President George Bush vows to retaliate against - were citizens of Florida, California, New Jersey and elsewhere in the United States. The scenario that is developing as reporters interview neighbors in apartment buildings and motels where the hijackers once lived is reminiscent of a recent Hollywood movie, "Arlington Road." The suspects were either all nice people or they kept to themselves yet made no trouble for anyone. This is a recipe for the growth of suspicion that no matter how our Arab American neighbors conduct themselves, "you never know," which could foment an unfortunate collective hysteria against them, approximating the lynching fervor that routinely enveloped southern communities during the Jim Crow era whenver an African American was accused of a crime against a Caucasian.
Our nation doesn't need a repeat of such savagery. Already two men have been murdered in Texas and Arizona in what appear to be hate crimes, and here in New York a mosque in Bensonhurst and another in Richmond Hill were hit with Molotov cocktails. The vast majority of Arab Americans are innocent of any traitorous sentiments. And a person doesn't have to be of Arab descent to be anti-American.
In the case of those who have become terrorists it is difficult to know what drives such fundamentalists from the poverty-stricken hills, mountains and refugee camps of western Asia and the Mideast to turn to a religious zealotry that tells them that sacrificing their lives will send them to heaven.
But, before our nation unleashes a heavy-handed, flag-waving military operation with visions of "Pearl Harbor Part II" dancing in our heads, we must remember that the enemy is not only already among us, but we also happen to be our own enemies, given the extent to which in the past we have ignored the plight of the less fortunate of the world. A more reasoned reaction begs that we take our time, mourn our dead, try to some degree to understand the thinking of those who committed this vile act (and their sympathizers), and considerably shore up our defense against attacks like this in the future (such as our shockingly lax airport-security system). All of this should come before more bombs, more bloodshed, more loss of innocent life in another part of the world. If that makes me a bleeding heart, so be it.
Hugh Pearson, a writer living in New York City, is the author of "Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South."
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