Salt Lake Rampage Puts Bosnian Muslims on Hot-seat

The day after Sulejman Talovic gunned down five persons in his deadly rampage at the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City two things happened that stand as a sign of hope and a warning of peril for the thousands of Bosnian Muslims in America.

The sign of hope was that several residents stuffed a potted plant and an envelope with cash and a note that said "sorry" at the door of Talovic's small frame house. The plant, the card and money were apparently intended as a peace gesture that showed that some residents even in their grief, pain and rage at the shootings could still feel some empathy for Talovic's family.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, and Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr. quickly weighed in and were careful not to point the finger of blame at the several thousand nervous and wary Bosnian Muslims in the city for the lunatic terror act of one individual.

The simple gesture of compassion for Talovic's family, as well as the governor and the mayor's healing message, was crucial, because there was also peril in the rampage. A Bosnian community leader claimed that several Bosnian residents were taunted and verbally harassed by locals. That stirred fears that there could be a witch-hunt against the relatively small community of Bosnian Muslims that sought refugee from their war torn country in Salt Lake.

The murders were just that, the crazed act of a lonely, despondent teen. And by all accounts, the estimated nearly 100,000 Bosnian Muslims refugees that now live in many cities and towns throughout America are hard working, model citizens. They have posed no crime or violence problems, and have for the most part successfully adapted to the country.

But that doesn't mean that their psychic trauma and scars they carry from the genocidal war that ripped their county, and the shock of being uprooted from their homes, has healed. In the near decade from 1993 to 2001, sociologists Reed Coughlan and Judith Owens-Manley interviewed 4,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees to determine the affect the war and the mass terror they fled from had on them. Their findings weren't pretty.

Nearly half of the refugees showed chronic signs of anxiety and depression. A sizeable number of them showed even more severe signs of trauma, and complained continually of fear, tenseness, and loneliness. In many cases, their trauma and sense of isolation did not evaporate with time. In some cases, the symptoms were still there a decade later. As one Bosnian refugee told the interviewers, "War changed life, we lost everything. I can't forget."

There's no evidence yet that Talovic was so shell shocked by the war that he strapped a bandoleer of shot gun shells around him and toted a backpack full of handgun ammo into the mall and gunned down innocents. Even if there was evidence of trauma that would be no consolation to the families of the victims, or to a city trying to make sense of his senseless act, and to heal.

But the Coughlan and Owens-Manley study did prove again that war and trauma are closely and sometimes tragically woven together. It also showed that many refuges in the U.S. from war torn countries are still in desperate need of continued help and resources from government and social service agencies to ease their transition here. That also means that public officials, as the mayor and governor in Utah wisely did, when public anger and passions run hot following a terror attack must do everything possible to dampen those flames.

In fact, public officials can play the decisive role in heading off any anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim backlash to the violent acts of a few. When homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1996, the predictable happened. By week's end, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there were more than 200 physical and verbal attacks against American Muslims, which included the burning of three Islamic mosques and community centers. A full-blown domestic anti-Muslim witch-hunt was brewing. But then President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno did not rush to judgment and scapegoat Arabs. The swift arrest of McVeigh squelched the building mob hysteria against them.

President Bush, like Clinton, in his first public words after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not reflexively finger-point Arab terrorists. He took great pains to publicly rebuke the acts of harassment or violence against American Muslims and Sikhs in some cities. This did much to prevent wholesale acts of violence against Muslims.

The killings at the Salt Lake City Mall were shocking, and horrendous, and have caused much pain and suffering. But the tragedy also showed that despite the shock of war and displacement, the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Muslims in America are working hard to rebuild their shattered lives. They deserve praise for their resilience against the odds, and not targeting as violence prone, crazies.

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