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RIGHTS AND THE NEW REALITY

Security Without Bigotry

September 21, 2002

The September issue of Arab-American Business magazine took on added meaning with the arrests of five Arab Americans in upstate New York. The Huntington Beach-based publication usually fills its pages with stories of Arab Americans who've achieved success in business. But this month's cover--featuring the now-ominous 9/11 date superimposed in black over a color photograph of the Statue of Liberty--offers a sober look at how the terrorist attacks are reshaping the lives of Arab Americans.

The inside cover unintentionally sets the tone with a four-color CIA recruitment ad. The smiling face of an Arab American man invites readers who speak Arabic, Dari/Pashto, Persian or Urdu, who "have what it takes"--and can pass a polygraph test--to apply for service as a Middle Eastern specialist. The ad notes: "There's never been a better time to serve."

A few pages later is an "open letter to Arab-Americans" from the head of the FBI's civil rights section. The official emphasizes the agency's pledge to investigate hate crimes directed at Arab Americans. But the letter also acknowledges "inevitable growing pains" in the relationship between the FBI and the Arab American community, including the divisive matter of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Though the magazine circulates largely among Arab Americans, the issue should hit home with anyone who is concerned about a dangerous clash between national security needs and constitutional rights. The lead editorial acknowledges that Americans now have much to fear. It adds that, "Unlike many of our fellow Americans, however, our fear is twofold: Not only must we be wary of attacks by extremists on our government, our country and our way of life, we also must be fearful of our government itself with respect to our individual rights."

The arrests in New York illustrate the necessary but painful balance the country must strive toward as it struggles to identify threats to the common good without stepping on the constitutional rights of its citizens. Law enforcement credits Arab Americans in Lackawanna, N.Y., with providing important information that led to the investigation and arrests. But, in subsequent interviews, friends and neighbors in that Buffalo suburb complained that many in this nation now view their Arab American compatriots as suspect simply because of their heritage.

In the wake of Sept. 11, reported hate crimes against Arab Americans--or people apparently targeted because they looked Arab American--soared from just three incidents in California in 2000 to 73 in 2001. This isn't just ill-mannered name-calling. The state attorney general's hate crimes report says that almost half of reported hate crimes involve assault and other types of violence. The report, coupled with the high-profile arrests, frames the hard but necessary challenge of fighting a war against domestic terrorism that doesn't trample individual rights.

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