Federal investigators had barely begun to sift through the bomb rubble of the Oklahoma City federal building in April, 1995 for physical evidence and clues. They had not interviewed survivors or eyewitnesses. They named no suspects and issued no official statement about motives for the bombing. Yet, an expert on CBS claimed that the bombing had a Middle Eastern trait.
The stampede was on. The rest of the TV networks blared reports that "two men of Middle Eastern appearance" were being sought. As the death toll climbed, the network talking heads relentlessly slammed home the message that Middle Eastern crazies had finally struck terror in America's heartland. The predictable happened. By week's end, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there were more than 200 physical and verbal attacks against American Muslims, which included the burning of three Islamic mosques and community centers.
A full blown domestic anti-Muslim witch-hunt was brewing. Fortunately President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno did not rush to judgment and scapegoat Arabs. The swift arrest of Timothy McVeigh squelched the building mob hysteria against them. But it didn't squelch, it propelled Clinton's 1996 Antiterroism Act, that civil rights and civil liberties groups had waged a protracted battle against, through Congress. The law gave the FBI broad power to infiltrate groups, quash fundraising by foreigners, monitor airline travel, seize motel and hotel records and trash due process by permitting the admission of secret evidence to expel immigrants. The implication being that present and future attacks would likely be launched by those with an Arab name and face rather than by men like McVeigh.
Though President Bush, as Clinton, in his first public words on the apocalyptic devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not reflexively finger-point at Arab terrorists, his tough-talk pledge to mount a world hunt for the murderous culprits seemed an open signal that the prime targets of the hunt will be Arab terrorists. The media quickly took the cue and ladled out to a shell-shocked public PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and especially, Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden as prime suspects. The grotesque attack may well have been orchestrated by one of the smorgasbord of Islamic fundamentalist Israel and U.S. hating terrorist groups who would gleefully bring mass destruction to U.S. cities.
This has stirred fresh tremors that a new wave of Arab-American bashing could be in the making. If so, the blame for that must fall on the media's wrong-headed omissions and distortions about terrorists and their traditional targets.
There were not "thousands" as one expert claimed of terrorist attacks worldwide last year, but 423 according to a State Department report "Patterns of Global Terrorism." This was a marginal increase from the number of attacks in 1999. The majority of the terror attacks were not in the Middle East but in Latin America. The most frequent target was a multinational oil pipeline in Columbia that Marxist guerrillas blew-up 152 times.
The next highest number of attacks occurred in Europe, mainly in Germany, Greece, and Italy, and Turkey. This was not an departure from the terrorist norm. Most of the attacks in recent years have been in Europe and Latin America, and few of the attacks were directly linked to the middle East or Islam. The State Department has fingered free-wheeling, anti-government groups such as the Tamil Tigers of Ceylon, Shining Path in Peru, Basque separatists in Spain, the Red Army in Germany as major terror attackers.
The Arab countries which in the past downplayed, ignored, or provided safe havens for terrorist groups, in recent years have mounted crackdowns on these groups. In 1998, Arab League countries formally agreed to tighten security, exchange information with the U.S. on terrorist activities, and cooperate in their extradition. Jordan, Egypt, and Kuwait banned HAMAS, agreed to provide more protection for U.S. ships in the Suez, U.S. embassies, and American citizens. The Arab governments took action against terrorists not because of any new found love for the U.S. or Israel. Their saber-rattling rhetoric remains just as hot against both countries. That was much evident in their near hysterical condemnation of U.S. and Israel at the recent World Racism Conference. They have taken action because they woke up to the fact that their fragile governments are in dire peril from terrorist guns.
Arafat, Egypt, and Jordan did not make swift and heated denials of any responsibility for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, solely to ward off a shower of American cruise missiles on their heads. Though that was likely the motive of Afghan Taliban, Pakistan, and Algeria. They denied responsibility because they realize that reining in terrorists is in their national interests too.
The clamor by Bush and the Americans to hit even harder at the guilty will grow to a roar. But the guilty must not translate into anyone with an Arab face and a Muslim surname.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a nationally syndicated columnist and the president of The National Alliance for Positive Action.