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Intolerance In a Time of War

Suspicion, backlash, anger and fear: many marginalized groups, from Arab Americans to peace activists, will feel these emotions in the coming days.
 
 
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And so it begins, the intolerance of war.

Already this week, even before the bombs began dropping, it had reared its ugly head.

Consider an incident in the Houston area, where a woman of French descent who has lived in the United States for 23 years, a retired real estate agent, found these words spray-painted in red on her garage door: "Scum go back to France."

The words are part of a wave of anti-France animosity, based on France's refusal to support our nation's unilateral march toward war.

Francoise Thomas discovered the words Saturday morning. Some neighbors rallied to her side, painting over the hateful graffiti and bringing Thomas flowers and chocolates. She and others wonder if a neighbor did it. Who else, they ask, know Thomas is from France?

Suspicion, backlash, anger and fear. These are the homeland insecurities that surround us in times of war.

Muslims will feel it. Arab-Americans will feel it. Peace activists will feel it. The divides that separate us will be drawn into sharper relief. What can be done, what can you do, to bridge those divides?

Lessons of 9/11

If 9/11 taught us anything, it taught us that our biases are emboldened in times of stress and pain.

Statistics gathered from various sources by the U.S. Department of Justice make it clear that heightened fears bring heightened stereotypes:

  • There has been a 1700% increase in reported hate and bias crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim since 9.11.
  • At least three individuals were murdered and likely four more were murdered after 9.11 as a result of Anti-Arab backlash.
  • Within six months of 9.11, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received reports of 600 violent incidents directed against Arab-Americans in the United States including acts of physical violence, vandalism, arson, beatings, assaults with weapons and direct threats of specific acts of violence.
  • Forty-five cases of beatings, harassment, threats and vandalism were reported in the six months following 9.11 against Arab-American students in elementary, high schools and universities.

And as is true of all hate-crime statistics, many incidents go unreported due to further fears of retribution.

Knowing this, the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., met in late February, when war clearly was imminent, to discuss fears of another such backlash.

"Since we went through this once already, especially in a lot of bigger communities, we're better prepared this time," said Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute. "This time, it's a rekindling and rebuilding of good relations."

Those relations, though, are strained by the Department of Justice's ongoing "special registration" of foreign visitors, from mostly Muslim countries, which has resulted in widespread detentions and complaints.

"We still don't know who has been detained and who has been deported," AbiNader said. "This cloud of secrecy exists."

Despite those strains, AbiNader doesn't expect the backlash from this war to be as harsh as the post-9.11 backlash.

"For the jocks who would be prone to violence, this war will seem like the greatest video game ever," AbiNader said. "They'll be able to displace their bigotry — or their elevated sense of patriotism — by watching the news and cheering on the troops."

When activism becomes a target

Victoria Cunningham is the office manager for Code Pink, an antiwar organization in Washington, D.C. that dubs itself "Women's Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace."
Cunningham is the first to read the group's hate mail.

"We get more than a hundred negative emails some days," she said. "It ranges from, 'I have nothing to say to you; you make me sick' to, 'How would you like it if I tried to rape and kill you and you had to find a peaceful way to stop me?'"

The same anger can be seen in the protest/counter-protest conflicts that happen on street corners across the nation, where each side, to a degree, demonizes the other. Peace activists become unpatriotic Americans sleeping with the enemy; military supporters become warmongers intent on killing innocent women and babies in Iraq.

"Everything in the world becomes polarized into good and bad, black and white," said Byron Bland, associate director of the Center on Conflict and Negotiation at Stanford University. "The world becomes divided into those who are fighting evil for good and those who aren't."

That's an environment that allows the free-speaking Dixie Chicks and French contrarians to become targets of hate, so we end up eating Freedom Fries while choking on our own narrow-mindedness.

"When great issues are at stake, you want to be on the 'right' side of them. That right side justifies horrendous things you do to people on the wrong side," Bland said. "A more realistic sense, of course, is that life is a mixture and people are mixtures; it's a distortion to see them polarized into us and them."

Cunningham, Code Pink's office manager, wishes more people would understand such mixtures. "My boyfriend is a captain in the Marine Corps over in Kuwait right now, and others here (at Code Pink) also have loved ones over there," she said. "That's one of the reasons we stand up. We don't want our troops and our people to be used unjustly. But instead of understanding that, it all just becomes another point of polarization to get us divided."

Brian Willoughby is Senior Writer for Tolerance.org