Terrorist by Association

One difference between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, is that Pearl Harbor was attacked by a uniformed enemy that approached on enemy ships and killed in enemy planes. Last month’s terrorists slept in American beds before boarding American passenger jets. They came from within. So as bad as things got for Japanese-Americans, they could get that much worse for Arab-Americans.

But Ali Abunimah points out a flaw in this premise. “We don’t know if it’s an enemy within,” he says. “What we know of these hijackers, from what the government’s told us, is that they did not live in Arab-American or Muslim neighborhoods. They didn’t frequent Arab-American community centers. They were swimming in the American sea, living in ordinary middle-class suburbs.”

Abunimah might be overstating it. According to last Sunday’s Washington Post, hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi moved into San Diego’s Parkwood Apartments in late 1999 and became “readily visible within the local Muslim community,” purchasing at the Islamic Center the blue Corolla they eventually drove cross-country last month to Dulles International Airport. But reconstructions of the others’ lives put them in places like the Valencia Motel in Laurel, Maryland; the Bimini Motel Apartments in Hollywood, Florida; the Homing Inn in nearby Boynton Beach, where landlords took their money and respected their privacy. They shaved their beards, dressed down, and hit bars and gyms like regular guys.

“They were not from the southwest side of Chicago, not from the big Arab-American concentrations in Detroit, not from our communities,” Abunimah continues. “They were people who came from outside and it seems were deliberately trying to be undetected. It’s possible they felt they would have been more vulnerable to being detected among people who shared their cultural background and who might have spotted their devious and evil intent.

“Where they came from is a mystery, but they didn’t live among us. We didn’t harbor them.”

The son of a Jordanian diplomat, Abunimah works at a University of Chicago research center, but it’s his Web site–www.abunimah.org–that he wants to be known by. He identifies himself there as a “lonely little guy” who monitors news reports on the Middle East and fires off a rebuttal whenever one’s called for–which in Abunimah’s view is almost always. I signed up for Abunimah’s E-mail list before writing about him two years ago, and in a little over a month received some 80 letters, many of them long and all thoughtful. A diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio told me then he heard from Abunimah two or three times a day–and he read every word: “He distills into very useful short commentaries the point of view of the Palestinians and the Arabs.”

On September 11, Abunimah’s life as a diligent monitor was turned upside down. At the end of the day he posted an essay trying to describe it. “I have never experienced anything like today, with dozens of calls from radio and newspapers. My message was simple: Arab Americans share the shock and horror of all other Americans, that we must not jump to conclusions and must avoid the backlash against Arabs and Muslims that followed the Oklahoma City bombing and the TWA 800 crash. But this is so much bigger and people are so much angrier.

“I received dozens of emails, some expressing the worst kind of hatred and vengeful feelings directed against Arabs, Palestinians and Muslims. I also received many messages of support and solidarity and these helped me to get through the day. The next few days will be just as hard or harder for all of us. This is an unfathomable human tragedy brought about by an enormous, unforgiveable and incredible crime.”

After a few hours’ sleep he wrote again. “I woke up in the dark, hoping and praying that I had woken up from a nightmare. The nightmare is still there….File footage of Ussama Bin Laden appears on every screen. Rumors of Arabs being arrested, or Arabic-language materials being found by police are already being made much of. On top of the pain we are all feeling for the continuing tragedy, this fills me with fear.”

He offered a taste of the E-mail he’d been getting. “ALL ARABS ARE COWARDS AND BARBARIANS.” “Ali, why do your people love when civilians are killed. You are Evil.” “You people, like the AIDS virus, are a disease of this world. I will rest more easily when all of you are dead.”

But there were also messages from a “caring, compassionate America,” and on this America he pinned his hopes.

Abunimah says his Web site used to average 250 to 300 hits a day. After September 11 that number rose to 1,500 a day, and it’s now leveled off at between 500 and 600. “All of a sudden there’s an incredible thirst for analysis independent of what people are getting from TV.”

He tells me, “The real imperative is to respond to the backlash. People are being beaten and shot for being Arab or looking Arab or Muslim. Every leader in the country has been almost impeccable about this. The president, Daley, Giuliani–that’s fantastic. There was one member of the House from Los Angeles who said that people should stop anyone with a diaper on his head. He was skewered for that, and he apologized. That’s great. There’s no tolerance for that kind of thing. But the thing we have to watch is whether that translates into standing against things that would violate people’s civil liberties.

“There are concerns about the fact that hundreds of people were apparently detained and not allowed to see their chosen counsel. They were held on minor technical violations–kind of a dragnet. I can understand the desire to catch anyone who may be involved in this, but we have to judge the government and society by what happens next.

“Profiling,” he says, “is sloppy policing. It’s lazy policing, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with Latin-American tourists who fit the profile of drug couriers, and it doesn’t work with hijacking. Since 1996 the government has had a computerized profiling system in place, and thousands of cases have been reported to the Arab-American Anti-discrimination Committee in Washington of Arabs being singled out for special scrutiny. I personally have been profiled numerous times, singled out, taken out of line, subjected to special questioning and special searches. And none of this succeeded in stopping this horrible crime. When you’re working on a profile you’re working on a set of assumptions and guesses. You’re looking at one thing and missing everything else. We thought that suicide bombers were young, uneducated single men. These men were highly educated, living in middle-class suburbs, and had families and children.”

Like everyone else, Abunimah has struggled since September 11 to find a context for the terrorism in the world as he used to know it. “Seizing the Moment,” a column published this week in Amman’s Jordan Times and posted on his Web site, finds him finally returning to his preoccupation, Palestine.

“What is undeniable,” he writes, “is that the continuation of this conflict, and American support for Israel’s occupation, greatly diminishes US influence and retards its relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds in every sphere.”

The United States’s “tactical need to put pressure on Israel” offers the Palestinians a “slight” and no doubt brief “advantage,” Abunimah reasons, one that perhaps “will last only as long as an intransigent Sharon remains in power to embarrass Washington” and would be put at risk by further Palestinian “atrocities–such as suicide bombings targeted against civilians.” But he observes that at the moment the Israelis “face the prospect of diplomatic isolation as countries like Syria and Iran are brought into the ‘anti-terrorist coalition’ and out of their ‘rogue’ status.”

He tells me, “I’m not trying to ask how the events in the Middle East caused September 11. I’m now trying to understand how September 11 will affect events in the Middle East.” Because “it’s important to preserve our ability to criticize the United States,” he won’t criticize it now. American feelings are too raw. Besides, he doesn’t see “a direct causal relationship” between U.S. policy in the Middle East and the hijacked planes.

Abunimah cannot make it too clear that support among Arab-Americans for the Palestinian cause does not bespeak the slightest sympathy for the September 11 terrorists, or even a comprehension of how those terrorists’ minds work. “These people are criminals of an order which the United States has never seen,” he tells me. “I don’t have any special insights into their mind-set. There’s nothing in my background or my heritage or political views or my family’s religion which leads one from holding a certain set of beliefs to committing an atrocity like this.”

A Problem We Could Live With

Some of us will miss privatization and unilateralism more than others will. But of all the great causes for which the drums no longer beat, it’ll be hardest to live without the war against Fidel Castro. He made a perfect archenemy. Arrogant, despotic, an actual commie, he took everything we dished out–invasions, assassination plots, economic sanctions–and came back for more. But as we can all see now if we couldn’t then, he was never actually scary. Cuban-style plane hijackings amounted to a quick turnaround in Havana and a souvenir box of cigars.

No one ever stood so tall as a congressman rising to denounce Castro by name. Politicians built careers on hating him. Just last summer senators Jesse Helms and Joseph Lieberman introduced the Cuban Solidarity Act, which was going to authorize Washington to somehow funnel $100 million to Castro’s opponents within Cuba. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act gave wealthy Cuban-Americans who claimed that Castro owed them for property confiscated 37 years earlier the right to try to recover it from foreign companies doing business with Cuba by suing them in U.S. courts. The outrage of nations such as Canada was a small price to pay for this flamboyant piece of legislation.

Radio Marti broadcast to the island day and night. Congress defeated every attempt to lift what’s now a 38-year-old trade embargo. The State Department made Cuba a fixture on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. (Afghanistan didn’t make the list because the U.S. didn’t recognize its government.)

Since the terrorists struck on September 11, has anyone wondered for even a second if Castro had a hand in the mayhem? Cuba promptly condemned the attacks, and Washington asked the Cuban government for help, the same way it asked foreign governments that weren’t the spawn of hell. Overnight, the Red Menace 90 miles off our shores became the least of our worries.

And don’t we all wish it was still the biggest.

The Best Buzz Money Can Buy

A recording company called 2KSounds came to the Reader’s Kiki Yablon the other day with a business proposition. If Yablon, this paper’s music editor, would submit demos to them from bands she thought could “make it,” she’d get half a point of the revenues over the life of each band’s first contract. “We get thousands of demos,” says creative coordinator Alex Waterworth. “It’s using people’s talents such as yourselves to try to pick out the best.”

Yablon said no. Waterworth told me 2KSounds offered the same terms to music writers at alternative papers in seven states, and no one else has said no.

Waterworth concluded from our conversation that the Reader had ethical problems with 2KSounds’s offer. “I have to say I don’t understand this at all,” executive general manager Jorge Hernandez asserted in a follow-up E-mail. He said he’d learned back in college that there were two kinds of journalists. “The first were very open minded journalists that were excited about local music…and wanted to do whatever they could in their local publication to give young worthy artists exposure. [The other type] was very quick to rely solely on their own personal taste and bias to pick which artists to write about….If the writer had no understanding of a certain genre, rather than admitting a lack of understanding, the writer was quick to lambaste the genre and its proponents.

“Having said that,” Hernandez went on, “the way I see it, regardless of which type of journalists you are there is no ethical dilemma. If you’re trying to further the cause of local music then letting a record label know about your local music scene can only help local artists potentially reach a larger audience. If you’re the second type of journalist I mentioned, well, in my book you’ve given up the right to stand on any ethical ground so to call our A&R research program unethical is laughable and down right hypocritical.”

I called Hernandez and told him Yablon was concerned about her own ethics, not his. Who could trust a word in her paper about a band she has a financial interest in?

OK, said Hernandez. He could see that.

News Bite

Last week’s World Trade Center issue of the Onion was the first I’ve seen that was better for the paper’s move to New York. But that’s the least of the praise it’s due. Saying why humor works is never easy, but in this case the shock of recognition has to be part of the reason. After she read the issue my daughter said, “It’s full of jokes I’d already been thinking of.” The terrorism–as well as Americans’ reaction to it–was on one level absurd. But it seems we can laugh at the nightmare we’re living.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. B. Spector.