His was not the face we expected to see when the dust from the bombing cleared; when the 168 lives lost were cataloged and blame assigned for the terrorist attack that shook all America.
It was not supposed to be one of our own--sandy-haired, blue-eyed Tim McVeigh--but some swarthy, brooding terrorist-type, with ties not to America's Midwest but to the war-torn Middle East.
It didn't take long for that image to surface. Within hours of the morning explosion at the Oklahoma City federal building, television and radio stations were reporting that two men of "Middle Eastern appearance" were spotted near the scene and being sought for questioning.
Just what "Middle Eastern appearance" meant, no one seemed inclined to explain. Were they wearing turbans and riding camels? Or did they just suit our predilection to consider terrorism the domain of brown-skinned foreigners?
"Arab extremists . . . Islamic fundamentalists . . . Muslim fanatics." The terms were bandied about by politicians and law enforcement officials in the days after the bombing, as they speculated about possible culprits and motives.
And Muslim Americans across the country felt tainted by the sting of accusations and threats.
At the Islamic Society in Stillwell, Okla., pellets were fired through a window. Here, at the Islamic Center of Los Angeles, telephoned threats began pouring in: "Baby killers . . . Animals . . . You should all be run out of town" were among the messages left.
In San Diego, a caller warned that the Islamic Center would be blown up in retaliation if it turned out that Arabs were responsible for the bombing. Orange County parents were alarmed enough by the hostilities to post guards and lock the gates outside a Muslim school.
The anger directed at them was "understandable," a local Muslim leader later said, given the involvement of Muslim terrorists in the World Trade Center bombing two years earlier.
Understandable? Maybe. Excusable? No.
It is not just that our rush to judgment was wrong. Even if Muslim terrorists had been to blame, their guilt should not be borne by the 6 million Muslims living honorably in America today.
It is a phenomenon familiar to many minorities: An act of savagery or treason or brutality occurs, and your first thought is for the victims; your second, of the perpetrator.
"Thank God it wasn't a Negro," I remember my aunt saying, when Richard Speck murdered eight nurses in Chicago in 1966. I was only 11 but old enough to understand the message implicit in her relief: If one black person did something evil or stupid, we were all somehow accountable.
Suhad Obeidi remembers the shame she felt when police announced they'd arrested an Arab suspect from Oklahoma at the Chicago airport on the day of the bombing.
"One step forward, two steps back. That's what it felt like," said Obeidi, who is of Palestinian heritage. "I remember thinking, every time we start making progress [toward being accepted], someone comes along and messes it up. If one person does something [wrong], then we all suffer."
And she recalls the relief she felt when the man--a Palestinian who became an American citizen in 1990--was declared innocent and released. The "bomb making" gear officials had spotted in his suitcase was a collection of electronic gifts he was taking to his family in Jordan.
Now, the furor over McVeigh's planned execution has resurrected those feelings for Obeidi and other Muslims, she says. "Some people can forget those early days, before we knew it was McVeigh. But for us, it all comes back . . . that horrible feeling of knowing that everyone thinks you are to blame."
Now, we head into a new round of legal wrangling and finger-pointing unburdened by speculation. But for many Arab Americans, the sting of prejudice remains.
"I think attitudes toward Muslims have improved since then because, luckily, the perpetrator was caught," said Maher Hathout of the Los Angeles Muslim Public Affairs Council. "The shock and sense of repentance that resulted from that pushed things in the right direction.
"But we are still the 'bad guy' in the mind of the world. And those feelings are magnified because we have a hot spot in the Middle East, and people are very passionate about that."
And many wonder if they will ever be free of stereotypes that tie them to terrorist actions.
"When the bombing was thought to be the work of Muslims, politicals were calling for putting Muslims in jail, interning them, like the Japanese," recalled Salam Al-Marayati. "People were talking about nuking Muslim countries.
"When they found out it was two white males, the whole focus was on what happened to these two individuals.
"That's the double standard," explained Al-Marayati, also of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "When a Christian fundamentalist bombs an abortion clinic or kills a physician, it's an aberration. When a Muslim commits an act of violence, Islam is to blame."
Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.