The Magazine

The Enemy Isn't Us

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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IF YOU’VE HEARD IT ONCE, you’ve heard it a thousand times already—from the same people who always tell us obvious things a thousand times when once would do: In response to a mass murder of our fellow citizens carried out by foreign hands, Americans must be careful not to alter the fundamental arrangements of our domestic life, else the bad guys will have won. "Nothing would please the terrorists more," you see, than for us to turn on one another, brother against brother, and set the Bill of Rights on fire in a McCarthyite witch hunt for the enemy within. Even at a moment of national crisis, the United States must remain the United States.

Well, yes. But at the same time, well, no.

It’s not at all clear, actually, that "staying true to ourselves" is really the thing that’ll get al Qaeda where it hurts. There’ve been some 90 apparent incidents of bias against Arab and Muslim Americans, a couple of them violent. And there’s a proposal by the Bush administration to give federal agencies expanded power to deter and prosecute terror plots—a proposal which various "civil liberties" groups, left and right, rush to decry as "draconian." The bias crimes are an insult to our country’s honor. And the anti-terrorism legislation is open to reasonable debate on its particulars.

Just the same, we rather doubt that Osama bin Laden now wakes up each morning hoping most of all for another vandalized mosque in Detroit and passage of the Mobilization Against Terrorism Act in Washington. We suspect, instead, that there remain a few items higher up on his priorities list—like not hearing an overflight of B-52s.

How such a man as bin Laden wishes America to conduct its internal affairs should be irrelevant in any case. That is for us to decide—while we sit around waiting to see him get what’s coming. And it is a question that turns out to be considerably more complicated than the ostentatious soul-searching of our interest groups and op-ed pages would imply.

To begin with: Is there, in fact, a pogrom now underway against American citizens of the Islamic persuasion? Or any serious reason to fear one? "Times of deep insecurity, grief, and anger," correspondent Linda Greenhouse lets loose in the New York Times, "have often evoked the worst of our national instincts." Following Pearl Harbor, for example, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans—Greenhouse makes the analogy explicit in her very next sentence—were driven from their West Coast homes and subjected to federal internment in spare and frozen Rocky Mountain Quonset huts. Will we now do something similar to the Muslims among our neighbors, she wonders? What "if the idea takes root that civil liberties should not be permitted to stand in the way of a war on terrorism" and "security measures start to corrode the very society they are designed to protect?"

And what if pigs should fly? Federal investigators believe that a handful of Osama bin Laden terrorist cells remain at large in the United States, and the FBI has specific members of the cells under surveillance. But though 6,000 people are now dead by these suspects’ likely connivance, not a one of them has yet been arrested. And our government is obviously, vocally, painfully embarrassed even by the appearance of certain steps it has already taken: the detention and questioning of various Arab-origined gentlemen lately resident within our shores. No general connection should be assumed, we are repeatedly told by our public officials, between any ethnic or religious group and the support or sponsorship of terrorism.

This word comes down from the very top: from the Oval Office, from the podium of a joint session of Congress, from every platform the president now employs. Indeed, George W. Bush has been at pains to acquit Arab and Muslim Americans of association with political violence since before the World Trade Center was destroyed.

This past June, the White House hosted a meeting of various representatives from those communities. Before it could begin, however, the event was marred by an "incident." One of the invitees, a Duke University undergraduate named Abdullah Al-Arian, was abruptly escorted off the property by Secret Service agents operating, Newsweek would report, on an "erroneous tip that the student had terrorist connections." Newsweek called it a "gaffe," especially given that Al-Arian’s father, identified only as "one of the country’s leading advocates for repeal of secret-evidence laws," had campaigned for George W. Bush against Al Gore. White House apologies were immediate and profuse. But memories of the slight—and the prejudice it might seem to have reflected—lingered.