“It just makes you wanna kill somebody, but who do you kill?”
That’s what a friend said after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’d like to say that I admonished him that violence only begets more violence, that there are more effective, more intelligent ways to respond to this attack than simply to bomb the hell out of “those folks.”
In short, I wish I hadn’t let myself get carried away with the anger and rage that has been felt so deeply by so many Americans during the past week. It is this anger and rage that in some cases has spilled over into senseless acts of hate-filled violence against innocent people who look something like the guy whom we are told is probably the key player in what is now being referred to as the war against America. Osama bin Laden is an Arab. He, along with his followers, is said to be responsible for what happened last week. Consequently some people apparently feel that all Arabs — and anybody who looks like they just might possibly be an Arab — are the enemy. One listener even phoned a talk-radio show last week and demanded that all Arabs turn themselves in to the government and declare their loyalty to the United States right away.
That’s crazy. But what scares me is that if I had let my anger get the best of me — and keeping it in check is a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day kind of thing — who knows how crazy I might have started to sound? When you turn yourself over to the madness that swirls around you, it becomes easier and easier to begin justifying that madness as appropriate.
I’m still extremely angry. I still think some form of retaliation is in order. I have no love in my heart for anyone who would do what those terrorists did on Sept. 11, 2001. But just as I can’t excuse what they did, I can’t allow myself to excuse anyone who feels justified in attacking any Arabic-looking person they see.
In America we have African-Americans, German-Americans, Swedish-Americans, Latin Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, American Indians, and on and on it goes. Included in all these different subgroups of Americans are Arab-Americans. Arab-Americans did not suddenly become any less American simply because a group of guys who look something like them and have similar-sounding names and accents decided to go on a murderous rampage last week. Many of them felt the same sense of outrage, pain, confusion and anger that you did. The only difference is that Arab-Americans suddenly became walking targets for all that ignorance and misguided anger directed at them by all those other Americans. In other words, Arab-Americans have more reason to be shocked and outraged than the rest of us. They are shocked and outraged not only at what was done to America, but by what their fellow Americans are doing to them as a result.
If you think I’m wrong, then I want you to consider something the Rev. Wendell Anthony said at Fellowship Chapel this past Sunday to a congregation that was suddenly overflowing with long-lost members such as myself. He reminded us of Timothy McVeigh. Before McVeigh was captured, it was already being reported that the likely suspect for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was an Arab. Everybody was just so damned sure that one of those Arabs had done this terrible thing to America.
But McVeigh was a young, terribly disturbed white kid who looked so all-American that he could have starred in one of those family-approved sitcoms.
Once it became clear McVeigh had done the deed, Americans were still very angry, but only with McVeigh. Somehow McVeigh managed to be placed into the category of a deviant, isolated incident. Sure, he was associated with those militia types, but so what? The fact that there are, as the Rev. Anthony pointed out, a whole lot more McVeighs-in-waiting out there in America’s so-called heartland than there are followers of Osama bin Laden doesn’t seem to be registering in the national consciousness. There were no reports of vengeful American vigilantes on the prowl for young white kids who looked like McVeigh, were there? Young, clean-cut, white American males were not and are not suddenly considered a grave threat to national security who must immediately report to their government to declare their loyalty.
But the only real difference between McVeigh and Osama bin Laden — if Osama bin Laden proves to be guilty — is that bin Laden succeeded in killing more people. Osama bin Laden has more money, a bigger organization, and he’s an Arab Muslim. Timothy McVeigh didn’t have much money, didn’t have much of an organization, and he definitely was not an Arab Muslim. But when it comes to hatred of the U.S. government the two men could have been twins separated at birth.
No, wait. There’s one more very important difference, and this was pointed out by the Rev. Anthony as well. Timothy McVeigh was not a suicide bomber. Sure, he was eventually put to death after a trial, but there is a huge difference between being executed by the federal government after a jury of your peers finds you guilty and making a conscious decision to hijack a plane and then ram that plane into the side of a building. That level of focused hatred requires a level of commitment unfamiliar to most Americans.
Americans will risk death in defense of America and democracy, but rarely if ever will you find an American willing and eager to embrace death in order to become a martyr for the sake of America, Christianity or anything else. We kill others in defense of liberty, not ourselves. We drop our bombs and fire our guns in the hope that we will make it back home. The men who crashed the Pentagon and the World Trade Center planned on never going home but on meeting their God who they are convinced will give them a huge reward for what they have done.
As the Rev. Anthony said, it will take more than bombs and rage to defeat an enemy such as this.
“We’ve got to come to the table.”Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org