After the horrific slaughter of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, Americans were outraged. But that fury was directed outward; none of the perpetrators of those terrorist attacks had been an American citizen.
Things are different now. The past few years have seen incident after incident abroad where attacks are committed by people with ties – including citizenship – in the countries where they have murdered fellow citizens in cold blood. In 2013, Lee Rigby was hacked to death in London by two British men of Nigerian descent. The men responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris this past January were born and raised in France. The ringleaders of the November’s Bataclan attacks in Paris were French and Belgian nationals.
In the U.S., as well, two recent successful terrorist attacks were carried out by U.S. citizens and legal residents. Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were residents of the United States. (Dzhokhar, as irony would have it, had become a citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.) San Bernardino mass murderer Syed Rizwan Farook was a U.S. citizen, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was a legal resident here on a fiance visa.
Boston could have been seen as an outlier, but San Bernardino has made it a pattern. And this has created a new and unnerving level of uncertainty and suspicion. Americans’ current outrage – inflamed no doubt by our government’s perceived paralysis in preventing these catastrophic attacks – is looking for a place to land.
Unfortunately, the recipients of much of that blowback have been Americans of Arab ancestry, some practicing Muslims and some not. The experiences they are sharing – in the news, in opinion columns and on social media – offer painful lessons.
This past week, Chicagoan Sharareh Delara Drury described an incident in which she was screamed at, called vulgar names and spit on by a man in a suit as they both rode a city bus. Drury is an American whose ethnicity is Irish and Iranian.
Similar accounts can be found everywhere.
Author and attorney Khurram Dara published a powerful essay in the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that it is (peaceful) Muslims who are under siege, and who must lead the fight. “A propaganda war must be waged on radical Islam,” Dara states, “and American Muslims have to be on the front lines for it to be credible.”
But it was Manal Omar’s recent piece with a similar theme in the Huffington Post that struck me most. Omar, a practicing Muslim who is associate vice president at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., said:
“The message to Muslims from media outlets to President Obama’s speech is clear. The world expects us to accept collective punishment and do more to stop what the nation’s leaders cannot – the expansion of ISIS and other violent extremist groups. That is a burden we must, and our (sic) willing, to bear.”
Omar’s insistence, like Dara’s, upon the need for Muslims across the globe to wrench Islam from the clutches of ISIS and other murderous extremists is logical, and I agree that it is critical. But her willingness to accept what she calls “collective punishment” gives me pause.
It is one thing to say, as some do, “You understand your faith better than anyone; you must regain control of it and make its tenets clear to the rest of the world.” It is quite another to say, “You are Muslim and these atrocities were committed by Muslims; therefore you are to blame.”
I suspect that many would agree with me. And yet, this is hardly the only time of late that we have seen “collective punishment” offered as a solution to an entrenched problem of human suffering inflicted by others. The “Black Lives Matter” activists and their “white privilege” theorist brethren are advancing a similar argument: Some whites owned slaves; some whites lynched blacks; the racism of some whites kept blacks down. Those whites may be gone, but others are here. Let’s force them to accept “collective responsibility” and impose “collective punishment” in whatever popular form that may take. The anger – and, frankly, hysteria – we have witnessed on college campuses in recent months comes perilously close to, if not outright mirrors, the screaming, spitting and other vicious behavior that Arab and Muslim Americans have endured. The similarities are worrisome.
When confronted with appalling violence and manifest injustice, it is natural to look for someone to blame. When those who are to blame are dead – whether due to the passage of time or as a result of their own violent acts – we tend to look for someone else as a scapegoat, someone who looks like the perpetrators, shares their ethnicity or background. Why shouldn’t they pay for the acts of those like them?
As superficially gratifying as this may be, it is toxic. Make no mistake. And it is ultimately lethal to a civilized society. No one wants to be blamed for something they did not do. It is even more infuriating to be accused of harboring sentiments one does not share and has never shared. Because unlike accusations of conduct, which can be disproven, accusations of thoughts and attitudes can never be. Those, even if baseless, linger like a stench. Eventually, even the staunchest allies grow weary of being convicted for crimes they never committed. Many will abandon the cause. Some will even throw their lot in with those whose attitudes they once abhorred. (“If I am rejected by you, I will go to those you say I am like.” “If I am to be constantly accused of X, I may as well do X.”)
This is the way battle lines come to be drawn, in wars that never need to take place.
Those seeking redress for injustice need all the allies they can get, and there are many to be found. Condemn the conduct, certainly. Convict the perpetrators when you can. And identify them, always. The individuals responsible should bear that responsibility publicly, whether living or dead.
But attach “collective punishment” at your peril. Down that path lay alienation, avoidable conflict and much more sorrow.