Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Devil You Know

This began as a comment response to Virginia Gal's latest post. As frequently happens, I started running off at the keyboard, so I just made this a post of its own.

The reason why most Americans are less fearful of homegrown terrorism than they are of foreign terrorism comes down to people being less afraid of the devil they know versus the devil they don't know.

White people have been in America waaaayy longer than Arab and Muslim people. So, when a white asshole bombs a building, it's perceived as a freak event, because virtually every American of any creed or color knows 1,000 basically nice white people for every 1 white average jerk. However, very few average Americans - and I mean statistically, racially/ethnically average (still about 70% white) - personally know or have met more than one or two Arabs or Muslims. So, when an Arab or Muslim asshole flies a plane of mid-week passengers into a building, it's not perceived as a freak event, but as, "wow, this must be the norm!"

Some fuel to this anti-Arab or anti-Muslim prejudice, at least in my lifetime, is that the only images of Muslims we've received in the media have been of the PLO shooting old Jewish American men in wheelchairs and tossing them off the boughs of cruise ships; terrorists bombing discos frequented by Americans in Berlin; bombing our barracks and embassies in Beirut; masked gunmen killing the Israeli Olympic team in Munich; Muslim men with scarves covering half their faces chanting "death to America" and burning effigies of presidents, and flags; jihadists hijacking our airplanes in the 80s or blowing them up over foreign destinations; and not the least of images, women who must cover from head to toe and be beholden to the men in their lives, walking several paces behind their husbands who view them as nothing more than machines to make more men. (I'm sure that last image was harsh on my part, but seriously, they treat women like shit in most of these countries.) With the exception of the cultural sexism, are those vicious behaviors freak occurrences in the Arab world and among Muslims? Almost certainly. But how can you expect an average American - who may or may not have ever met an Arab or Muslim - who only gets that news and those images to think that there is not a threat posed against him from the average Arab or Muslim?

Speaking for myself, even the American who wants to look beyond the bad news events and knows that most people in the world are basically decent, if flawed, still views the Arab world with a good dose of suspicion and distrust (as evidenced by my assertion of their sexism). I believe in working to deliberately stamping out stereotypes, but the anti-stereotype PSAs and campaigns that arose after 9/11, intending to help the average American know that the average American Arab or Muslim wasn't out to get them, were a bit too little too late by at least 15 years. I'm glad they were there, but by the time they ran, we'd been getting Arab/Muslim terrorist news since the 70s. Why was it only after the towers were destroyed that the Arab community and "moral media influencers" felt the need to make sure people in Omaha knew that an NYC cabbie was not an enemy of the state?

The stereotypes are unfair to the vast majority Arab and Muslim Americans, but being counfounded that the average American buys into them is like being confounded that someone who's only ever gotten food poisoning off of shellfish is extremely suspicious of the ceviche you made. No matter how bloody awesome, slap-your-momma good the ceviche is.

All that said, it isn't like white men have been profiled, at least in the past. It just isn't as obvious, because, most Americans are familiar with white men so they don't notice profiling. How do I know? Before the days of 9/11, when I traveled by air by myself, I was pulled aside for a random swab of my carry-ons for explosive materials, or open bag check maybe 20% of the time. When I traveled with Honey, it was 80% of the time - and I can only assume it was higher for him, traveling alone. Why? Because Honey fits the physical Timothy McVeigh stereotype. He is an averaged-height blonde with close-cropped hair; a blue-eyed young man who is quiet and carries himself with a military bearing. He looks like he could be the type who'd join a government-fearing militia. (THANK GOD, Buddha and Oprah that he's exactly the opposite!) It did distress me that once 9/11 happened, the airport distrust of him entirely dissipated immediately. Just because we have a new threat doesn't mean the old one has gone away. But his profiling wasn't problematic because as an educated white man ascending a solid career ladder, in a society built to support educated white men in power, even if he's inconvenienced for 5 minutes, he faces basically no other prejudices, suspicions or harassments.

And that's where it's harder for Arab Americans or frankly, for anyone who looks like they come from a predominantly Muslim country. If the dark skinned guy with a prayer cap is pulled aside for extra check, no big deal. But that same guy gets side-long glances everywhere, all the time. He's probably been the direct recipient of a racial slur from some raging asshole at some point in his life, or at least the recipient of some insensitive comment from someone who may not have known any better. He's hypersensitive to his differentness in this WASP-affluence society. That's not to say he shouldn't be pulled aside for a check; it's just to say it probably feels as much like yet another indignity as an inconvenience.

I genuinely hope the recent cowardly murder of Dr. Tiller and the horrible episode of at the Holocaust museum will re-open our eyes to domestic threats. American-grown extremists are out there and, I suspect, since we turned our backs from them, they have been quietly steeping in the past decade or so. Unfortunately, through first-hand conversations with people who have this experience, I've learned how hard it is for law enforcement officials to make a move on extremist groups and individuals. I know we like to complain about all the damage that the Bush administration did to our civil liberties - and I do think he did - but there are still plenty of levels of bureaucracy out there to protect us from wrongful investigation and arrest. So much so that people like that bitter old white supremacist from last week, who may have indeed been on a watchlist, are still able to do what he did. A watch list is just that. Our law enforcement agencies, from the fed through the local, don't always have the teeth we think they do.

In the meantime, I suppose all those of us on the ground can do is work to recognize our own fears and work against them. And maybe, just maybe try to befriend someone who is different from us - racially, politically, religiously, regionally, sexually, etc - so that we can mutually influence one another. Build our tiny bridges where we can.


Virginia Gal said...

Wow, what a long response, I'm glad you did your own post, you would have killed my comment section, he he.

At least you recongize that there is predjuice in our profiling and thinking. Admitting it is the first step.

JoeinVegas said...

And, compared to all that, how many people died in car accidents last year? Of cancer caused by smoking? Of other singular causes? Why are we so obsessed when other things cause bigger problems.
Frankly, (I wonder who this Frank is) I would much rather do away with all the airport security, big time wasters to me, remove my shoes and belt? Can't take on that water? Come on.
All the casinos here have armed guards looking in your car at the parking garage, I am always tempted to fill my trunk with cardboard tubes painted red with paper wicks and see what happens. And armed guys with dogs in the casinos? For what?

mommanator said...

great post,so well thought out.
maybe I am thought of as an ostrich, but this is one reason I don't watch/read the news.
WHen I was growing up I lived in a multi racial/cultural neighborhood.
I think that has something to do with my beliefs. I try and not listen to others about a person/group. I like to get to know people/person on my own and
formulate my own thoughts. ANd I try not to HATE anyone.
I have a funny story about racial profiling. After 911 my hubby had to come to FLA to get me as I couldn't get a flight out. He was
6'2'',overweight, partly bald with great white beard. Police follwed him for awhile and finally stopped him.
He knew he hadn't done anything wrong proceeded to stop. They said they had gotten a report of a person driving his type of vehicle and his descritpion was reported involved in the 911 catastophe.
You just had to know him! more gentle person you could ever meet, and most people called him Santa!
We laughed about it often.