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With the news that two suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing are accounted for, one dead and the other in custody, I breathed a sigh of relief. A terror-stricken week that began with bombings and ended with shootouts was finally over.
But the moment the suspects were identified as Muslim marked a new period of anxiety and vulnerability for millions of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, including me. As a Sikh American who has chronicled hate crimes and profiling against our communities since Sept. 11, 2001, I wondered: Will we go down the same road again, or have we learned from history?
In the days ahead, every American will face choices about how to respond to the Boston Marathon bombing, the largest on U.S. soil since 9/11. Already we have seen echoes of the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 — profiling of innocent bystanders, retaliatory hate crimes, and calls for counter-terrorism measures that single out specific communities. If we want to follow President Obama’s appeal of “staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong,” we must use this moment to take stock of the times we faltered.
It began minutes after the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A 20-year-old Saudi national studying in Boston was watching the race and had his body thrown by the force of the explosion. When he got to his feet, terrified and badly hurt, he ran from the smoke with hundreds of others. A bystander saw this young man with brown skin as “suspicious” and rushed to tackle him. He became the first innocent person to be targeted after the bombing.
The same scene unfolded in the streets of Manhattan minutes on Sept. 11, 2001. A 25-year-old New Yorker was running from the collapsing Twin Towers when he stopped to catch his breath. A group of men pointed, called him a terrorist, and shouted at him to “take that turban off!” Amrik Singh Chawla, a turbaned and bearded Sikh American, ran for his life again that same morning and barely escaped.
Unlike Chawla, the 20 year-old Saudi national in Boston was “tackled” to the ground and subject to an investigation that involved interrogation, dogs, and bomb squads. “Why?” asks Amy Davidson of the New Yorker. Because “people thought he looked suspicious.” On Monday afternoon, the New York Post and Fox News reported him as the first suspect, later refuted by the Boston Police Department.
The first person arrested as a terrorist suspect after 9/11 was also an innocent man singled out for the way he looked. On Sept. 12, 2001, passengers on a Boston-bound train called authorities, reporting a turban-wearing passenger. In Providence, SWAT teams rushed the train, pointed rifles at Sher Singh, and escorted him off the train. A crowd gathered on the platform and people yelled, “Kill him.” Even though he was released the same day, photos and videos of his arrest – a Sikh American with a turban and beard, handcuffed, flanked by federal agents – was broadcast for days.
Last week, several innocent men like Sher Singh also had their photos released as suspects. Last Thursday, the front page of the New York Post showed a high school student watching the race with a friend. The headline read: “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The teenager quickly went to authorities to clear his name. He told ABC News, “It’s the worst feeling that I can possibly feel… I’m only 17.” Still, media hounded his family, who were afraid to leave their home.
As suspicion and profiling flooded news and social media, we heard reports of fear and hate in public spaces, including at least two violent hate crimes. Last Monday in the Bronx, Abdullah Faruque was beaten by a group of men who cursed at him and called him an Arab. On Tuesday, passengers on a plane headed to Chicago from Logan Airport were de-boarded because some expressed concern after overhearing them speak Arabic. On Wednesday, Palestinian woman Heba Abolaban was punched by a man she say screamed, ”‘F— you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions!”
Muslim and Sikh Americans remember all too clearly this aftermath of 9/11, when these and thousands of hate incidents against “Muslim-looking others” erupted across America, including Balbir Singh Sohdi, a family friend who murdered in Arizona on Sept. 15, 2001 by a man who called himself a patriot. We’ve even seen rising hate crimes in recent years, including attacks on mosques and a horrific mass shooting at Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin last August.
That said, we can still find hope in the events of last week. In Boston, thousands from many faiths and backgrounds came together in courageous relief efforts. Leading voices in the government and media followed the president’s call “not to rush to judgment… about entire groups of people.” Muslim and other community organizations immediately used infrastructure built over the last decade to condemn the bombing and prevent hate crimes. As a result, our response as a nation has been largely calm and restrained.
Perhaps our greatest test lies in the days ahead. Already public officials are using the bombing to advance counter-terrorism measures that single out Muslim Americans and immigrants. Will the Boston bombing lead to heightened surveillance of Muslims, as Rep. Peter King has demanded? Will it cast suspicion on all immigrants just as our nation considers immigration reform, as Sen. Chuck Grassley has suggested? Will it justify curtailing civil liberties, as Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain implied when they called for Tsarnaev, a U.S. citizen, to be denied a defense attorney, labeled an “enemy combatant” and sent to Guantanamo?
As we consider these possibilities, we must remember the consequences of our counter-terrorism response to 9/11. Right now, New York City is debating whether their police department requires independent oversight after discovering the department’s secret surveillance program which profiled innocent Muslims for more than a decade. This month, an independent non-partisan commission concluded, “It is undisputable that the United States engaged in a practice of torture” of detainees after 9/11. Even now, at least 63 detainees in Guantanamo are on hunger strike in the largest protest of indefinite detention to date.
We have enough lessons from history to learn from the past, but we also have more power to change the course of the future. More so than in the days after 9/11, everyday Americans have the access and social media tools to hold our public officials accountable and combat hatred and suspicion. “This community will recover and heal if we turn to each other rather than on each other,” said Mass. Governor Deval Patrick to the city of Boston. Now it’s up to us to heed that call as one nation.