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The Nation

Deluge of Hate Crimes After 9/11 Pours Through System

Courts: Officials have three times the cases involving Arab-looking victims as at this time a year ago.

July 06, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Mark Anthony Stroman was an easy case. A white supremacist, in the days after Sept. 11 he walked into a succession of convenience stores in the Dallas area and killed a clerk from Pakistan and another from India, and he partially blinded a third from Bangladesh.

Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Stroman voices no remorse. He recalls telling each of his victims, "God bless America."

As the incidence of hate crimes against suspected Middle Easterners subsides, authorities are beginning to prosecute cases growing out of more than 420 investigations nationwide. Although some offenders show no regret, many others are expressing embarrassment over their hostile acts in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Joe Montez drew two years' probation for telephoning a truck stop in Hewitt, Texas, on Sept. 17. After asking whether the clerks were Iranians, he said, "There's a bomb where you're standing.... There's a bomb in your building."

Montez knows he should have controlled his Sept. 11 anger. "I made a mistake," he said in an interview. "I'm trying to put all that behind me."

The threats and retaliations have come in many forms: a call left on the voicemail of the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. An anthrax hoax letter that turned up at an Arab American restaurant in Madison, Wis. Physical attacks, arson, hate messages on the Internet.

Proving a hate crime can be especially difficult. Authorities must show that a victim was purposely selected because of race or religion.

Nevertheless, officials have opened three times as many investigations into hate crimes with Arab victims since Sept. 11 as in the same period the previous year. They include 350 federal cases and 70 by state and local authorities.

Even with offenders such as Stroman locked away, many advocacy groups still feel the bias, even people from South Asia, such as Indians and Pakistanis, who often are mistaken for Arabs.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, said his organization has heard almost 60,000 reports since Sept. 11 of some kind of harassment against American Muslims. They range from violence to slurs to job discrimination, he said.

But non-Muslims also have come to the aid of victims, including the owners of Curry in a Hurry, a Salt Lake City restaurant that was set afire Sept. 13.

The eatery was filled with customers, though none was injured. Diners helped douse the blaze and later returned to paint and rebuild the structure. Others sent cards, flowers and presents.

"If the building had gone down, I'd have lost my business," Mona Nisar said. "My whole family would be starving."

A Pakistani, she was surprised to learn that she knew the assailant, who sometimes ate there. "He was our friend. But he was just too upset about what happened."

James Herrick, 32, pleaded guilty to filling two jars with gasoline and torching the restaurant.

"My actions were in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon," he told the judge.

Making clear that the arson was indeed a hate crime, he said he believed the Nisar family was "'of Middle Eastern heritage."

Herrick sent an apology letter to the Nisar family, and in court his fiancee hugged some of the family members.

On Jan. 7, he was sentenced to 51 months. Prosecutors filed a court memo that read: "We were compelled to respond quickly to deter the perceived growing backlash against innocent members of our community. These hate crimes are noxious to the principles of liberty and freedom embodied in our Constitution."

In Seattle, when a mosque was attacked, neighbors began security patrols to prevent another assault.

On Sept. 13, Patrick Cunningham, 54, tried to burn cars in the mosque parking lot; when that failed, he shot at worshippers.

He pleaded guilty May 9; he is scheduled to be sentenced in August, with a possible sentence of five to seven years.

"In his mind," the plea agreement said, "he did not distinguish between the terrorists believed to be responsible for the attacks and people of the Muslim faith."

Prosecutor Don Currie said Cunningham "believes he made a horrible mistake." Defense attorney Olaf Hansen said his client had family in New York, but no one hurt or killed Sept. 11: "Something just snapped with him. It was a pretty crazy time then."

Mosque director Hisham Farajallah said members have forgiven Cunningham. "It's obvious he did this out of revenge, hatred and anger," he said. "But to me it was out of ignorance."

Then there is Stroman, 32. The father of four offers no apologies, even from his death row cell, where he keeps photos of the burning towers. He also has a jailhouse tattoo commemorating Sept. 11.

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