George Bush's Holy War
Friday, September 21 2001
America Online proclaimed Tuesday the 11th 'the day everything changed.' The desire to believe in a world-transformed-in-a-moment is like the hope for a great messianic leader to redeem it — a hope, it must be noted, which President Bush seems determined to satisfy, from the evangelical cadences of Wednesday's pledge to 'lead the world to victory, to victory' (9/12) to Friday's determination to 'rid the world of evil,' (9/14) as if he were Christ himself, stepping down from the dias of the National Cathedral to heal a sick nation. Where faith in the ability to rid the world of evil ends, belief that the presence of evil in America has brought this tragedy upon it begins, at least in the minds of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who on The 700 Club declared and amened:
'The pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say 'You helped this happen.'"
Whether or not the President shares this particular interpretation of the Gospel (a White House aide declared the speech 'inappropriate', according to the New York Times), we can be sure that a government in wartime stomps all over the line between terrorism and dissent. The logic of collective punishment extends in Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's pledge of 'ending states who sponsor terrorism.' If we wanted to give this remark the most generous berth, we could quibble over its proper interpretation, distinguish between a state's government and a nation's people to diminish its genocidal implications, empathize with the plight of a man who found himself under attack, one-third of the office complex he works in gone, hundreds of his co-workers missing. But not everyone would submit his remark to such close textual analysis. While America's leaders pledged to erase terrorists and launch crusades against barbarians, some Americans were taking steps to do, if not God's work, than certainly the country's, wherever they saw them.
By Friday the 14th, the story of reprisals against Middle Eastern, Muslim, South Asian Americans, and anyone who could be confused for them had been caught in an updraft from the local press to national media, with CNN reporting an 'Arab American Community Keeping Its Head Down.' A cursory survey of the news that day revealed that mosques and community centers in America had been attacked with firebombs, shot at, splattered with black paint or blood, or tagged with graffiti; that businesses had their windows smashed, shot out, or were otherwise vandalized; that individuals had been chased by mobs, beaten, attacked with a machete, mugged, threatened with a gun, shot at, escaped being intentionally run over by a car, or in the case of one member of the Bad Subjects collective, choked.
That night, I crossed the street with an Indian American friend after a movie. She refused to jaywalk, though the streets were clear. She had heard about attempts at vehicular manslaughter, and she wasn't taking the chance that someone would accelerate if they saw her in a crosswalk. 'It's as if there are two races in this country: white, black, and everything in between is suspect,' she said. Racist thugs don't stop to confirm ethnic identity before they attack: the Bad editor is Chicano. Only a country as racialized as ours could simultaneously negate the meaning of these identities, and conflate them with an othered menace.
CNN did not report the acts of violence, so much as their aftereffect: the retreat of individuals from public life, concealing their identity by refusing to wear traditional clothing or to identify as Muslim, cancelling cultural events, staying close to campus or fleeing when bomb threats were called in, cancelling school or religious services altogether, staying home from school, from work, from places of worship. By Monday the 17th, the stories of the children who did not play on my corner today, the students who did not show up for my class, the businesses that did not open in my neighborhood, were endemic. Indeed, the effect in reading all this is to feel that any reporter, armed with an editorial commitment to cover such stories, can find them wherever he or she lives. In this litany, the newsroom staple — answering machine tapes, that routinely fill with verbal harassment and death threats — threatens to become a banality, a soundtrack to life under war.
By Friday the 14th, the press had sympathetically described the pained syntax of the President's statement, 'We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror,' as a plea for tolerance. In turn, the New York Times had noted, 'The incidents are increasing despite many interfaith prayer services and calls from President Bush and other officials for the public not to single out anyone because of religion, race, or ethnic origin.' In the time it took for such racist attacks to go from national aberration to national problem in the eyes of the commander-in-chief, two men were murdered, and more were harassed.
Indeed, what is remarkable, given the President's determination to 'rid the world of evil,' is that his speech Monday afternoon from the Islamic Center of Washington D.C., like his earlier statements, offered no mention of specific acts of violence, no condemnation of the attackers by name, no expression of sorrow for the victims, no promise to prosecute perpetrators to the full extent of the law, no effort to publicize resources and emergency numbers for those who have been attacked, no discussion of what law enforcement and local communities might do to stem the attacks. In the massive economic package put together to aid national recovery, there has been no mention of compensation to businessmen whose stores have been closed, or to workers who have been sent home or not felt safe enough to leave it. In all the 'how you can help' lists assembled by the national media, there is no mention of where to call if you have been the victim of a racist attack. This is the true achievement of a colorblind society.
On Monday the 17th, after a weekend in which two men were shot dead in the Southwest, the President emptied his rhetorical six-shooter at Osama bin Laden. In a morning press conference, Bush declared, "I want him; I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'' But that afternoon at the Islamic Center, the President encouraged the nation to sing 'Give Peace a Chance.'
Facing manifestations of evil in white Americans (according to reports that specify race), Bush was struck ideologically dumb. Presumably, the President's message — that Muslim Americans are just like us, 'citizens, tax-paying citizens,' and later, 'doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads' — would be sufficient to check men like Colin Zaremba, who told MSNBC, 'I'm proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have,' while marching with hundreds of others on a mosque in suburban Chicago, or people like Frank Roque, who reportedly shouted, 'I stand for America all the way,' as he was arrested on suspicion of gunning down Balbir Singh Sodhi in a gas station parking lot. The President did not even recognize these men by demonizing them, unless his idea of an insult is to call someone 'not America[n],' the phrase repeated throughout his remarks, like a mantra of disassociation:
'Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value.
I've been told that some fear to leave [home]; some don't want to go shopping for their families; some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.
Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.'
With no mention of white violence, and a gendered victim for American manhood to defend, this quote offers material for years of analysis. The point here is that in the face of such evil, President Bush's public statements have amounted to a 'can't we all just get along?' plea, while he attends to the serious business of finding bin Laden and 'whipping terrorism, hunting it down, binding it.'
The point is not to suggest that Bush has an antipathy towards Muslims; certainly, he has no desire to kill them. At best, his statements suggest an awkwardness in discussing discrimination, a need to reassure 'Americans' that 'they' are 'us,' and a social distance from any place where these are truly life-and-death matters. White skin affords him that. Nihad Awad, president of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, thanked the President for his time Monday, adding, 'His supportive remarks will help set a tone of tolerance and inclusion for our society.' But as the past week's events have shown, the President can do far more than 'help set a tone,' and even on that score, he has categorically failed.
This morning, I spoke with a friend who worked four blocks from the World Trade Center and escaped on foot, covered in debris, across the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking every plane that flew overhead would be the one coming to take the bridge out. She gets one channel on TV, and she no longer watches that; like many Americans, she is tuning out the constant loops of news and reads the headlines of the New York Times instead, when she can lift her head above her own shock. She was pained to hear there had been racist attacks against Americans following the bombings, and after I mentioned a few, she asked me to stop.
Presidential leadership could make this headline news, could connect people on both sides of suffering. Instead, we get the poverty of symbolic politics: interfaith prayer services, stopovers at an Islamic center, and on Wednesday the 19th, an Islamic leader who gets to sit in the big chair (the president of Indonesia) while the President offers another plea for tolerance to reporters gathered at the White House. As the self-styled Western sheriff mobilizes forces of war abroad, the rule of law at home withdraws; for some, justice infinitely denied. In its absence, concerned Americans must fill the void.
To the list of police, fire, health, and safety workers to thank, I would like to add people who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their neighbors are safe; neighborhood groups that have declared their opposition to racist attacks in their community and established phone trees and support networks to prevent them; organizers who have made multilingual Hate Free Zone signs a popular sight on the street; and protesters who will demonstrate their opposition to a war that is total, covert, and limitless.
- If you are the victim of a racist attack, call the police.
- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has established a hotline to report hate crimes following the attacks on September 11th. 1.800.552.6843.
- You can report hate crimes to the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as find many resources on the crisis.
- Global Exchange is one of many organizations producing a Hate Free Zone action pack, with downloadable posters at: http://www.globalexchange.org/september11/hateFreeZone.html
- The U.S. Students Association offers a downloadable "Organizing Against Hate" manual: http://www.usstudents.org
- American students at almost 150 universites have declared Thursday the 20th a National Day of Action against the war. You can read their platform and find a campus near you here: http://www.peacefuljustice.cjb.net
Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.