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The Usual Suspects
By CLARK KENT ERVIN
Published: June 27, 2006
WHILE relatively few people would repeat Representative John Cooksey’s statement after the Sept. 11 attacks that “If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked,” the vast majority of Americans do have a stereotype in mind when we think of terrorists, and that stereotype is of someone of Arab descent.
Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason, of course. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zahawiri, are Arabs. All 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Arabs. The late, unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s top man in Iraq, was an Arab. But even if, in the post-Sept. 11 world, it is to some extent understandable that we are more suspicious of those we take to be Arabs than we are of others, it is also illogical, politically incorrect and morally repugnant. Moreover, it could play into Al Qaeda’s hands.
It is illogical because the chance that any given Arab is a terrorist is only marginally greater than the chance that anybody else is a terrorist. It goes without saying that such thinking is impolitic. And one needn’t be an ethicist to realize that it is unjust to slap such a noxious label on a whole group of people on account of the misdeeds of a few.
But to understand why reflexively associating terrorism with Arabs is ill-advised, consider the arrests in Miami last week of seven men allegedly plotting to blow up the F.B.I. headquarters there and the Sears Tower in Chicago. It may turn out, as the men’s families and friends maintain, that they were merely harmless oddballs. But, if the government’s allegations prove true, these men were Qaeda loyalists intent on waging a “ground war” against the United States in order to “kill as many devils” as possible in an attack “as good or greater than Sept. 11.”
None of these men is Arab. Most are African-American, and all of them are black. If it turns out that they were terrorists inspired by Al Qaeda and radicalized by an extremist interpretation of Islam, it will not be the first time that terrorist ideology has infiltrated the black community.
In 2004, Earnest James Ojaama, a Seattle-born black convert to radical Islam, was sentenced to two years in prison for providing material support to the Taliban. He was allegedly conspiring with someone who British authorities believe was linked to the London terrorist bombings last summer; they planned to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon. And in August 2005, the government charged three African-American Muslim converts with planning to attack National Guard facilities, synagogues and the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
African-Americans are not the only non-Arab Americans who have been radicalized and enlisted in the terrorist cause. Jose Padilla, an American of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in Chicago and converted to Islam in prison. The government at first alleged that Mr. Padilla attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan and intended to set off a dirty bomb on American soil. (He has since been charged with less sensational crimes related to terrorism and transferred from the military justice system to the regular criminal justice system.) And of course, there is John Walker Lindh, the white “American Taliban” captured by American troops in Afghanistan in 2001.
In other words, terrorists can and do come in every color of the racial and ethnic rainbow. And Al Qaeda takes advantage of our tendency to stereotype Arabs as terrorists by actively recruiting among the non-Arab population. We know, for example, that Al Qaeda regards American prisons — hothouses of impressionable, idle and violence-prone men — as particularly fertile territory for planting and harvesting the seeds of terrorism, especially among the disproportionately high black and Hispanic populations.
To all this one may say, very well then; some terrorists aren’t Arabs, but aren’t they all Muslims? Shouldn’t we subject Muslims to particular scrutiny?
This assumption, too, could be turned against us and exploited by Al Qaeda, if the group managed to make common cause with non-Muslim zealots of one kind or another who oppose the American government or particular groups of Americans. There are plenty of such groups within the United
States: white supremacists, separatists, even plain old opportunists who can be bought for a price.
Finally, stereotyping Arabs or Muslims as terrorists angers and alienates them at a time when we need their support like never before to help root out those within their communities who do indeed pose a threat to our nation’s security.
So the next time you find yourself wishing that the screeners at a crowded airport checkpoint would speed things up by letting the white-haired, blue-eyed grandmas through and concentrating only on the swarthy guys with odd headdresses, remember that Al Qaeda may be wishing for the very same thing.
Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department from 2003 to 2004, is a fellow at the Aspen Institute and the author of “Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack.”
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