Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Traveling while Muslim

Niagara Falls International Peace Bridge;
photo courtesy of Border Station Center presentation photos

This is a "yes, it can happen here" post -- "it" meaning bigotry and discrimination, not liberation. Ruben Navarrette, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, tells the story:

"…the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. After that, polls showed that solid majorities of Americans -- including many African Americans and Latinos who, frankly, should know better -- felt that it was OK to subject some of their fellow Americans to heightened scrutiny based on little more than their ethnicity or national origin.

It is at the bottom of that slippery slope that we find the disturbing story of the dozens of Muslim Americans who were interrogated, fingerprinted and detained for more than four hours at the U.S.-Canadian border in late December. These were U.S. citizens and residents of the U.S. who were heading home from an Islamic conference in Toronto.

Those plans hit a snag at border checkpoints in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y. … In an experience that one of the Muslim Americans detained called "degrading, humiliating and dishonorable," Border Patrol agents pulled them aside for questioning. When the travelers asked why they were being grilled, they were ignored and not given any explanation.

Their offense? It was probably nothing more complex than this: traveling while Muslim.

As U.S. citizens who had done nothing wrong, these Muslim-Americans were entitled to one right above all others -- the right to be left alone. Whenever they hear stories like this, Americans can't afford to just shrug them off. Instead they should feel outrage, concern and maybe even a little embarrassment. …

Those detained included Karema Atassi, her husband, Tamer Osman, and their 7-month-old son Ismail. Atassi says that all three of them were held from 11:30 p.m. until 4:30 the next morning. All are U.S. citizens.

Apparently someone thought these people looked like terrorists. It's a good thing that I never became a Border Patrol agent. I would have mistaken them for a family trying to make their way home after a long day and what turned into an even longer night.

We accept our authorities casually discarding the rule of law for their own arbitrary, often racist, hunches because we are afraid. Sure, the 9/11 attacks left us shocked and confused to discover we had real, ruthless enemies. However our current fearfulness is only partially a rational response to 9/11 -- it is also a toxic waste product of the many convoluted pains of contemporary US life.

Scared by 9/11 and also feeling pushed around by the boss? -- take revenge on some Muslims. Scared by 9/11 and feeling life is a series of incomprehensible bureaucratic hurdles set up by the health insurance company, the 401(k) agent, and the tax preparer? -- cut out all the procedural niceties and push some Muslims around. Scared by 9/11 and not able to get your child into the better school nearby? -- make sure no raghead is going to get what your child can't.

Unscrupulous politicians thrive on our fear. If we're fixated on enemies, we're all the more likely to hang on to our known authorities -- we've proved it, we re-elected Bush. And since we are all looking under our beds and across our borders for the terrorists we're encouraged to fear, we're easy marks for the theft of Social Security, the plunder of our natural heritage, the destruction of public services and education.

After all, we can blame it on the Muslims -- few, different, and powerless in this country. Do we, powerless, mean-spirited, and acquiescent, really want to live out this ugly script?

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...

Protests by Buffalo area Muslims have gotten a rise out of the Department of Homeland Security. Newsday reports that DHS will send a spokesperson to respond to complaints.

"Daniel Sutherland, officer for civil rights and civil liberties, is expected to meet with leaders of local Muslim groups and participate in a forum at the University at Buffalo on Monday and Tuesday. …"He's traveling to Buffalo next week to meet with groups who are interested in homeland security policy, as he's done in many cases across the country," [a DHS flack} said."