We all have our memories of where we were on 9/11. I was living in Boston, two blocks from where last week’s bombings took place. I walked out of our offices in Copley Place that morning onto Boylston Street, in a daze, like everyone else. My recollections are nothing noteworthy; most people who weren’t in New York or Washington that day have similar stories to tell. Where my memories diverge from those of most people is in the weeks and months after 9/11, a period during which, for the first time in my life, I became acutely aware of the color of my skin.
I remember the times, after Boston reopened for business, when I would get stopped by security guards on my way up to the office and asked to show ID, while my white colleagues were waved through. (This was a few months before asking for ID became standard procedure in East Coast office buildings.) There was the time in October 2001 that a gate agent at Logan Airport refused to let me board my flight to London, for no apparent reason. When I asked her what I had done wrong, she started shrieking hysterically and threatened to have me hauled out of the airport by force.
You could dismiss these incidents — and many others like them — as trivialities, mere annoyances. And it’s true that they were not much more than inconvenient. 1950s Little Rock this was not. After the incident at Logan, I went back home, canceled the various meetings I had the next day in London, and took the next day’s flight out. As inconvenienced as I was, life did go on.
Many people believe it meet and right for some of us to go through these inconveniences if it means that others will avoid being maimed by terrorists. “I would rather be damned if I do than dead if I don’t,” wrote Michelle Malkin in an eloquent articulation of that philosophy. To believe otherwise, goes the view, is to kowtow to the decadent purveyors of political correctness.
But it’s a lot easier to argue for inconveniencing people when it’s others who will be affected. In that brief period after 9/11, I came to appreciate what blacks and Hispanics often talk about, what many conservatives dismiss as hypersensitive aggrievement: what it’s like to be under subtle suspicion for no other reason than how I look – and how profoundly unfair, and un-American, that experience feels.
I harbor no illusions about the malevolent nature of radical Islam. My ancestors were forced out — to put it mildly — of what was then called East Bengal when the Muslim majority there seceded from India to form Pakistan.
But when I hear certain politicians use the Boston bombings as a pretext for scotching immigration reform, when I hear Peter King talk about “increasing surveillance” in order to address “the threat that is coming from the Muslim community,” I wince. Representative King, on the whole, is quite sensible about the War on Terror. But the FBI was already monitoring Tamerlan Tsarnaev, even bringing him in for questioning two years ago. If we can’t keep an eye on the people whose e-mails we’re already reading, how is putting the entire Muslim community under government surveillance going to do us any good?
“The FBI has bowdlerized its training materials to exclude references to militant Islamism,” writes Michael Mukasey in the Wall Street Journal. The Obama administration describes the Fort Hood massacre by Nidal Hasan as “workplace violence.” By all means, let’s call a spade a spade, stop deferring to the PC police, and focus on the real problem of jihad. If anything, we don’t do enough to face up to the Koran’s frequent endorsement of violence toward nonbelievers, nor to encourage truly moderate Muslims to take charge of their communities.
But the right response to underreaction is not overreaction. Not all people who look like Muslims actually are. And suggesting, categorically, that Muslims be placed under surveillance will alienate many immigrants who are otherwise assimilating quite well into American society. These Americanized Muslims are our most crucial allies in the fight against radical Islam. Representative King may not have meant what he said; he may in fact advocate a more narrowly tailored focus on radical imams and their followers. But if that’s true, he should clarify his remarks. Words matter.
As Reihan Salam notes in a perceptive piece for Reuters, “a large majority of U.S. Muslims appear to be comfortable with religious pluralism.” The Arab kids I knew in Boston could usually be found drinking vodka in the oonch-oonch-oonch nightclubs near Fenway Park. They weren’t in their basements reading how-to guides from al-Qaeda.
Most leftists are unserious about the threat of radical Islam. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally have a point. If our response to terrorism is to place all Muslim immigrants under suspicion, then, in at least one way, the terrorists have won.