"The first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas and free minds." ~ Isaiah Berlin
On Being Hated in Your Own Home: Arab-Americans in the Heartland
I was born in America , and I fully consider myself an American. Except for military service in the US Army, I've never lived anywhere but America .
Two of my four grandparents were WASPs in ethnic background. My paternal grandfather was a native Egyptian Arab and my grandma was a native Syrian Arab. My mother was of Norwegian/Swedish background, and I'm told by many that knew her that I resemble her more than my full-blooded Arab father. I've been told that if I changed my name, I could "pass for a real American (!) very easily." This lengthy preamble about my family history and ethnic makeup is to set the stage for the story I'm about to tell you of an incident that happened just a few days ago.
I was out of town on business and was in a coffee shop waiting for my coffee, and perusing the pastry display through the glass counter. Over in the corner of the place was a large screen color TV tuned to one of the cable news channels. People in the shop were intermittently watching as they sipped their beverages from their seats and tables without any great interest. Then this happened.
A hostage held by some Iraqi resistance group came on the screen. She was life-sized and in color. She was crying and moaning and barely in control of herself as she read between sobs a propaganda statement begging for her life and urging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to withdraw his troops from somewhere. As the hostage read this obscene and sadistic infomercial, armed men in masks flanked her, brandishing AK-47 rifles and wicked looking unsheathed knives. It was riveting in a blood-curdling sort of way. I and everyone else there were transfixed by all this, as surely as if we were hypnotized, although I felt vaguely ashamed about watching. And finally, I couldn't watch it any longer, and I averted my eyes. I felt sick inside at the morbid and disgraceful conduct of these people, and so I said a silent prayer to G*d to comfort and aid this poor woman and the people who are close to her. And then it was suddenly over. A toothpaste commercial was now blaring away in its place. Like a spell being broken, I shook it off and was ready to go back to my own thoughts.
But then a man, middle aged and middle class, at the table next to me suddenly exploded with a verbal and noisy expression of his outrage and wrath.
"Those f*cking people should be killed. Those goddamned ragheads! Every single damn one, and then we should lock up and get rid of all the ones around here too, goddamn it!"
"Amen to that bro," someone I didn't see chimed in. I heard others, total strangers endorsing his call for revenge and genocide. I didn't look up to see who said what and who "amened" it. I just wanted out of that coffee shop. Right then and forever. Then my coffee was up; I hurriedly paid and left.
I had business to attend to, so I put this searing and horrible experience out of my mind as best I could. But it was futile, as everyone should expect. Like trying not to think about a pink elephant after being told not to think about a pink elephant. It is just impossible to.
I concluded the task that brought me to this city and drove home on the expressway. Which unfortunately gave me a chance to rehash and try to interpret for myself what to make of these incidents. Both the one in Iraq and the one in the coffee shop. For to me, they were inextricably intertwined philosophically and karmically too, if you believe in such things.
First, I understand the man's outrage. Because see, I felt it too. I was raised in the Islamic faith, and while I have to admit I'm not devout anymore, the Islamic-prescribed ideas of proper moral conduct and the duty to be just are still within me. They are the basis for my actions and opinions and likely will be for the rest of my life.
Torturing a person and her family as that poor woman was is condemned by the Holy Quran and mainstream Muslim opinion and always has been. I truly hope people realize that fact. But that being said, let me say to you reading this: Consider the events that lead up to all this before you say "amen" to angry calls for genocide against your fellow citizens.
Iraq is an old, ancient country. Not Iraq the modern state, but the " Fertile Crescent ," the land of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The place where Jews, Christians, Muslims and others of Faith believe the Garden of Eden was. Some modern archeologists say Western civilization was born there.
After the "Liberation" of Iraq , the US systematically screwed up every opportunity to improve things with the Iraqis and court their favorable opinion. Now look at the fine mess the US government is in because of that fact.
Soldiers and Marines barge into people's homes and hold them at gunpoint while they rifle through their possessions. And search their cars at checkpoints when they travel. And take their privately owned firearms with a zeal that would make Sarah Brady proud. They clomp through thousand-year old Mosques and holy places in combat boots and carrying weapons. These are places that haven't had anyone in shoes walk through them in centuries. Not even Saddam would have done this. And they urinate against the walls, spray paint them, and flick cigarette butts against their homes and buildings.
Which brings me back to the point that I wanted to address when I started this story. As I said, I am an American, and the American Midwest is the society I know the best, because I've lived in it my whole life.
If I could address those people in the coffee shop, I would try to get to them to understand the wrongness of what they were saying by trying to gain their empathy with this hypothetical example.
Imagine that troops from another nation and another culture occupied America . Or Michigan . And they did all the things our troops do and did. And have trashed, bombed or otherwise ruined the infrastructure, both public and private, needed for decent living. And on top of that killed thousands of us in "collateral damage" incidents. How long do suppose it would be before these red-blooded Americans like my friends in the coffee shop started taking potshots at the occupiers? Or making IEDs to set off when they patrol through their neighborhood to collect guns and rummage through their homes? Unless I am totally wrong about America and Americans, it would be soon. And it would be unrelenting.
Hotheads would likely even go to the extremes of taking, humiliating and executing hostages and other acts of sadistic and horrifying terrorism. And Americans would (mostly) condemn it too. Just like the Iraqis do.
Please think about this story the next time you become angry or outraged at something you seen on the TV news. And remember the words of novelist and poet Willa Cather spoke when she said, "when kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless."
Like hate and genocide.