THE HARSH, accusing messages arrived in high-tech ways, in e-mail and posted on the Internet, and in ugly old-fashioned ones: hateful words spray-painted on walls, shots fired into an empty Islamic center in Dallas. Right here in Alexandria, bricks crashed through the window of an Islamic bookstore. Tied to them were threatening notes, one addressed to "Arab murderers." Arab Americans and Muslims had been braced for the backlash. They'd seen it before, when the Oklahoma City bombing was initially and erroneously blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists. It was wrong then and, no matter who is responsible for Tuesday's evil assault, it's wrong now.
President Bush warned yesterday against assigning guilt to the blameless. "We must be mindful," he said, "that as we seek to win the war [against terrorism] we treat Arab Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve." That's a message that ought to echo from leaders at every level, as it has in New York and in Oklahoma City, where 500 citizens joined in a Muslim-led interfaith service Wednesday. Law enforcement authorities are providing extra protection at Muslim sites in some cities; they must also act vigorously against those engaging in harassment or intimidation. It's a sad note that even as the president was preparing to declare today a day of remembrance and urge Americans to attend noontime prayers, some Islamic leaders were so worried that they were considering asking imams to cancel regular Friday services.
The rage and sorrow that have filled the country are no excuse for giving in to ugly stereotypes that label whole communities for the acts of extremists. This week many Muslims have struggled to remind their neighbors that they are Americans too, shocked and outraged by the slaughter of innocents. If anger and vengeance are allowed to drown out that message, it will only add shame to the nation's grief.