THE AMERICAN flag floats in the breeze, anchored on public buildings, houses, car windows, backpacks and baseball hats in small towns, big towns and sprawling suburbs.
And, somewhere, an American flag was flying when a self-described American patriot shot a Sikh gas station owner to death in Mesa, Ariz., which he followed by shooting a Lebanese clerk and then firing into an Afghan's home. The flag was flying when an Egyptian Christian was killed in his market; when a Pakistani Muslim was shot outside his store in Dallas; when a bomb was thrown into a home, hitting a 3-year-old. Taunts and vandalism have unraveled the nation, tearing the fabric of American life into shreds.
After the most gruesome and heartbreaking act of terrorism in American history, we are beginning to witness explosions of hate crimes. The enemy has been identified: If it looks different or worships differently, it has become the enemy to many bewildered, devastated and angry Americans.
So two groups emerge - one that is clearly American, and another, American at heart, but different in appearance. As one group gets angrier, the other frantically attempts to recede into the shadows. And thus begins an internal war of us vs. them.
Hate crimes are not new phenomena in the United States. Throughout its history, various segments of society have been singled out as justifiable recipients of violence. After Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 enabled the U.S. government to extract Japanese Americans from their homes and confine them to internment camps of grim barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The War Relocation Authority had 120,313 Japanese Americans under its control. During the Civil Rights movement, churches were burned down, activists murdered.
Think those embarrassing atrocities would never be repeated in a global age of political correctness and enlightenment? They've already begun. A recently released Gallup poll indicates that six in 10 Americans favor requiring that people of Arab descent be subjected to intensive security checks when flying on American planes. Half believe that Arab Americans, including those who are U.S. citizens, should be required to carry special identification with them - in essence, the 21st-century version of the Star of David. Another third believe Arab Americans should be placed under special surveillance, as were Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, in the hours immediately following but prior to the discovery that a home- grown boy was the architect of the explosion, many erroneously believed that the enemy had been identified. Throughout the country, more than 200 Muslims were victims of harassment. An Iraqi woman miscarried her baby after a crowd attacked her home, screaming anti-Islamic epithets.
Now, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs have to answer for the actions of madmen who hijacked and perverted a religion to accommodate their political agendas. White supremacists have long used their interpretation of the Bible as justification for their hatred of all things brown, black, Arab, Jew - anything outside of themselves. Yet Christians, as a group, are not reviled and condemned for the ignorance of the few. If skinheads, Ku Klux Klan members and Aryan Nation followers are not representative of all whites, why are terrorists seen to be representative of an entire region?
If adversity displays our strengths and weaknesses, then what will Americans see in the most intimate caverns of themselves if hate crimes are perpetrated against the innocent? While many extend helping hands, there will be others who will use theirs to point fingers, deliver punches and pull triggers. Allowing ourselves to morally collapse amid the ruins of our military and financial landmarks makes a mockery of the ideals the American flag has come to represent - democracy, freedom and justice.
The flag has become similar to the blood on the doors of the Israelites on the day of Passover in Egypt. If it is displayed, does that mean freedom - not freedom to live, work and play, but freedom from harassment, torture or possibly death at the hands of fellow Americans - for those who live inside?
Arab Americans have been in America since the 19th century. They fought with their neighbors in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Arab Americans, such as Gen. Fred Sagay, fought alongside Gen. George Patton in World War II. Those of Mideastern descent have made incomparable contributions to American society, from major to minor. Heart surgeon Dr. Michael Debakey invented the heart pump, Ralph Nader fought for consumer rights, comedians Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr gave laughter. Quarterback Doug Flutie wowed thousands. The founders of Kinko's and Alamo Flags, the largest retailer of flags, were of Mideastern descent. They have been doctors, businessmen, actors, writers, lawyers, clerks, and, once, friends and neighbors.
If we do not stand united, then we continue the destruction that began on Sept. 11. Putting aside our differences, our racism and our rage is the only antidote to the disease of terrorism.
Anita Ninan is editor at large for Bibi, a South Asian culture magazine.
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