What They Are Saying To Us, And Why It Matters
By James Zogby
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 James Zogby
All rights reserved.
THE DAY THAT DIDN'T CHANGE EVERYTHING
WHEN AMERICANS went to bed on the night of September 10, 2001, the Arab World felt very far away. Despite the growing importance of the region, most of us in the West only fleetingly directed our attention its way—during crises like political flare-ups or oil price hikes. Once the various crises passed, the Arab World all but disappeared. Floating on the periphery of our consciousness, its realities were largely shrouded in myths and ignorance.
Then, on September 11, nineteen Arabs hijacked four planes in the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history. Thousands were killed, and a shocked nation all but shut down for days, while most of the world stood in solidarity with mourning Americans. Long neglected, the Arab World now had our full attention. But as we went about figuring out how to prevent future tragedies, separating the real Arab World from the hype that inundated us via newspaper headlines, overheated talk shows, workplace rumors, and ideologically driven policy was a real chore. Listening is simple—but not easy.
On September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, I sat alone in the well of a theater at Rockefeller Center in New York. Facing me in the audience were more than a hundred family members of victims in the 9/11 attacks. Because of my academic work in Islamic Studies and my role within the Arab American community, NBC's Tom Brokaw had invited me to be his guest on a special, commemorative live broadcast.
Of course, I knew this exchange might be painful and difficult. During the past year I had been in touch with several survivors—they had the right to ask tough questions, and I felt a personal responsibility to provide answers and, if possible, to help their healing. I had spent the last several decades of my life trying to share the Arab reality that I knew with other Americans. This meeting was an important part of that job.
Early on in our discussion that day, audience members asked me to explain how such an act of violence could be justified. I immediately replied that there was "no justification, period."
From there, most of the conversation went well, focusing on understanding Arabs and Muslims. I wanted to make clear that Arab Americans had also died in the attacks—that we, too, had mourned. I pointed out that many Arab Americans were first responders at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, and even more serve in the military and law enforcement agencies committed to keeping our country secure.
However, two audience members kept asking: Why can't you Arabs just condemn what happened and not try to justify it? Each time I made clear, with Brokaw's concurrence, that I had unequivocally condemned all terrorist acts and would never tolerate anyone else attempting to justify these heinous acts of murder. But no amount of repetition could get my message across. Most people understood, but in their pain and fear, some had simply stopped listening.
Though I wish I had been able to get through to every member of the audience that day at Rockefeller Center, I respected the effects of such intense trauma. For these people, a national calamity had also resulted in an intensely personal loss. I also understood that it is one thing for private citizens dealing with emotional pain to shut down, but it is quite another when our public commentators stop listening.
Later that same day, I was at Ground Zero. Abu Dhabi Television, the Arab satellite network that carries my weekly political talk show, had purchased the rights to a program called "The Roots of 9/11," produced by the well-known New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
After the special aired, Friedman joined me in discussion from the former site of the World Trade Center. We were connected by satellite to a student audience in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For more than an hour, the students reacted to the program they had just seen, and Friedman responded.
The exchange, thoughtful for the most part, became testy at times, with Friedman pontificating that although Americans understand Arabs, Arabs have only surface knowledge of the United States—derived mainly from watching television programs and movies. To bolster his point, Friedman noted that he himself had taken multiple courses on Middle East history in college, and later at Oxford, where he had earned a master's degree in Middle East Studies. Dumbstruck at this sign of unintended arrogance, one very bright young woman pointedly responded, "But we're having this discussion in English"—a fact that Friedman, a widely read columnist on Middle East matters, had apparently missed.
Following the trauma of 9/11, we were repeatedly told that it was a day that changed everything. This made sense: terrorists had been able to kill thousands of innocent Americans, a situation we could hardly accept as status quo. But although the United States was now focusing enormous talent and resources on the Middle East, one critical element hadn't changed: the real Arab World was still largely shrouded in myths. A mixture of fear, arrogance, ignorance, and bias made listening to and understanding Arabs and their world an elusive goal. Sadly, this was a road I'd been down before.
In the very early morning hours of April 20, 1995, I found myself being shuttled in the back of a car through Washington's nearly empty streets. Exhausted from a nonstop stream of interviews, I was headed to one final session.
About sixteen hours earlier, a U.S. Army veteran named Timothy McVeigh had parked a Ryder truck full of explosives outside the shiny Alfred P. Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City. Minutes later, as McVeigh made his escape on foot, an explosion tore the front off the building, killing 168 people in what was then the worst case of terrorism in U.S. history.
The media quickly seized on the fact that the explosion came on the second anniversary of the final raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. They were right: McVeigh had, in fact, timed his bombing to coincide with both the events in Waco and the 220th anniversary of the Revolutionary War battles at Lexington and Concord. But just as quickly, the media gave space to rumors linking Arabs and Muslims to the attack.
Less than two hours after the explosion, for example, former Oklahoma Congressman David McCurdy—echoing comments made on CBS-TV by a professional Muslim basher, "terrorism expert" Steven Emerson—speculated that Muslims or another Middle Eastern group might well have perpetrated the attack. There was, he noted, a large and active Middle Eastern community in Oklahoma known to support radical causes. He was flat-out wrong: there has never been any evidence connecting Oklahoma's Arab American population to anything untoward. Further, aside from superficial similarities to the bungled but still lethal 1993 World Trade Center bombing, there was simply no evidence linking al-Qaeda or any other Islamic or Arab group to the crime.
Eventually, Congressman McCurdy—who was a finalist for the job of CIA director in the Clinton administration—seemed to realize how far off base he had been. After first suggesting there was Arab or Muslim involvement, McCurdy caught himself, cautioning that we should not jump to conclusions. But it was too late; with McCurdy now seen as validating the speculations of the "experts," the story played out all day that perhaps Arabs had been responsible for the attack.
For my part, I tried to keep the frenzied postattack media coverage grounded in reality. Throughout the day, I defended Arab Americans via radio and television. At 8 P.M., my live call-in television talk show, A Capital View (the precursor to my current show Viewpoint), went on air. We received calls from Arab Americans across the country, outraged over the assault and the loss of life it caused. Many were also deeply concerned with the inevitable consequences that would flow from the suggestions linking Arab Americans to this heinous act.
We even received calls from a number of Arab Americans who were experiencing the beginnings of the backlash. By far, the most poignant calls came from the Arab American community in Oklahoma City. They responded first and foremost as Oklahomans—hurt and grieving for their neighbors and friends who were killed or wounded in the attack. "Oklahoma has always been home to us," one caller noted with pride. But another Oklahoma City family called in, terrified, reporting that an angry mob had gathered outside their house.
Finally, on that early April morning, I had one more stop to make—one more chance to appeal to reason and calm. Washington, DC's CNN studio is tucked away in a concrete maze of high-rise office buildings beside Union Station, the capital's train hub. By day, this area is hardly attractive. At night, it can be a lonely and foreboding place. But I was going there again, as I have many times since, to say two things: like virtually all our countrymen, Arab Americans and American Muslims condemned the Oklahoma City bombing; and the media, congressmen, and would-be CIA directors must take responsibility for their casual speculation. These things would have been obvious to anyone who took the time to listen.
For millions of Americans, 9/11 began as just another Tuesday morning. I was stuck in downtown Washington traffic. While stopped at a light, I noticed the woman in the car next to me signaling. As I rolled down my window, she shouted, "Did you hear?"
"No." I had been meaning to get my car radio fixed.
"A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!" she yelled. "My father works in that building." Then the light changed, and she moved on. I never saw her again, but I can't forget her look of sheer horror.
By the time I got to the office, everyone was watching television. That was when the second plane hit. Like my colleagues, I was stunned and transfixed by the images of planes slicing through the walls of the World Trade Center, of people jumping from the buildings, and, finally, of the two towers collapsing into a pile and disappearing forever. By then, though, the nightmare had become more personal. My daughter worked near the Pentagon, the third target. She called, frightened and also concerned for me because the White House seemed another likely target, and my office building is only three blocks away.
Building security came to evacuate us around noon. We refused to leave because there was too much work to do. Although no one yet knew for certain the identity of the hijackers, speculation was rife that Arabs were involved, and Arab American community leaders were already phoning us for advice and support. They wanted to know how to respond and what to say to the inevitable media requests.
From early calls and e-mails, we could see signs of a brewing backlash. During this period, my office was under police protection because of what quickly became a flood of hate mail and death threats. Some were personal: "Jim, you towel head. Death to every Arab. We'll slit your throat and kill your children." Others were more general. On October 12, 2001, I was asked by the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mary Berry, to present testimony on the extent of hate-crime violence that had occurred in the wake of 9/11. In my testimony to the commission, I catalogued hundreds of documented hate crimes against Arab Americans, Muslims, and those thought to be Arabs and Muslims. I noted that there had been seven murders as well as other acts of violence and threats of violence.
This backlash was profoundly disturbing and quite frightening to Arab Americans. We, too, were pained by the horror that had been inflicted on our country. We, too, needed to mourn. But we were pulled away from our grieving and forced to look over our shoulders to respond to those who struck out against us with hate, telling Arab Americans, in effect, "You are not a part of us." This produced a double hurt.
Another thought plagued me. I was angry, of course, at the threats and prejudice. But more than that, I was angry at the terrorists who had violated the openness and freedom of my country. They had killed thousands of my fellow citizens. And in so doing, they had also caused incalculable damage to the millions in the Arab American and Muslim American communities.
Each day after the attack, as I read new reports detailing the activities of the hijackers leading up to 9/11, I was struck by how sinister it was that these men, armed with such hideous intent, were able to take advantage of the opportunities and the almost naïve goodwill of so many Americans. The hijackers had found homes in which to live and schools to train them, and they had moved about without question—all the while planning their deadly mission.
How was it, I wondered, that as these hijackers prepared to kill thousands, they weren't moved to question their intended evil by the good they saw around them every day? The answer lies in the perverse logic of closed ears. Fundamental to terrorism is a willful abstraction, a dehumanizing of victims, and a blunt refusal to understand. The terrorist's mind-set relies on an active denial of reality.
Concerned with the growing backlash, leading Arab American organizations called on the Bush administration to speak out against this bigotry. We took our appeal to the national media and, using our national network, to grassroots Americans. The Ad Council of America sponsored an ad from my organization promoting greater understanding of Arab Americans and American Muslims. The ad appeared in the newspapers of more than 10,000 communities, and it was ultimately converted into a TV ad carried by the Starz-Encore networks and seen in 64 million households nationwide.
The response was immediate and profoundly gratifying. In the weeks following the attacks, I made multiple daily television appearances on every major network. I did radio shows and interviews with dozens of newspapers. Soon, the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) called us to an emergency meeting. We had requested that the DOJ issue a statement condemning hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims. We had also asked that it set up a mechanism to prosecute those who committed hate crimes against our community. They agreed to both of our requests. The FBI began to investigate possible civil rights violations with the intent to prosecute quickly in order to set an example of enforcement.
Two days after the attacks, I had received personal calls and messages from leaders across the political spectrum—from Senator Ted Kennedy to Senator John McCain, and from Senator Joe Lieberman to former Congressman Jack Kemp. All offered support and acted to defend Arab American and American Muslim rights. Within two weeks, the tone of the e-mails we were receiving had changed: they were now either expressing support and opposing prejudice or asking for information about Arab Americans, Arab history, and Islam. A month after the attacks, the acts of hate had declined precipitously. This was the good news about America in the aftermath of 9/11—the overwhelming generosity and understanding of the American people, even in a time of great stress.
From a distance, Americans have followed many traumatic events in the media age. But there was something quite different about 9/11. This time Americans, along with their many supporters around the world, did not simply suffer for the victims; they suffered with them. Because the weapons were ordinary civilian aircraft, the death scene a place of work, the buildings iconic—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and the casualties so many, those of us who watched were affected to our core. Each of us said, "It could have been any one of us." And in a way it was. People from virtually every nationality, race, and faith had died. As we listened to the stories of those who survived, each of us was able to relate to the horror, the loss, and the fear. As a nation, Americans were filled with an almost inconsolable sadness.
As time went on, out of this enormous anguish, fear, and confusion there arose an honest curiosity about the region from whence the nineteen hijackers had come. There was a real chance that, as Americans reached deep inside to rebuild, this tragedy could actually lead to understanding. Clearly, this was not what the terrorists or the purveyors of hate had wanted. They wanted to show they could make the West bleed. They welcomed talk of a religious war or a clash of civilizations. But the opportunity for mutual understanding was there just the same. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Arab Voices by James Zogby. Copyright © 2010 James Zogby. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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