The Gulf crisis has raised the threat of terrorism--instigated by Saddam Hussein and directed against American targets both abroad and in this country. Hence, the increased security at federal buildings and airports, and the decision of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to photograph and fingerprint visitors holding Iraqi and Kuwaiti passports. These have been telling signs of a nation assuming a wartime footing. Given the pronouncements out of Baghdad, these countermeasures are inconvenient but necessary security precautions against possible terrorist attacks.
Yet it is exactly at times such as these that government must take care not to circumscribe the rights and freedom of its citizens. Regrettably, that may have happened last week during the course of a special Federal Bureau of Investigation program focused on Arab Americans.
FBI agents contacted more than 200 Arab-American business and community leaders across the country, ostensibly to inform them of the bureau's intention to protect them against any backlash from the Persian Gulf crisis. Investigation and prosecuting hate crimes and ethnically motivated violence spawned by Middle East turbulence is a legitimate job of federal law enforcement officials, so that aspect of the bureau's initiative was welcomed by Arab Americans. But FBI agents also used the occasion to gather intelligence about possible terrorist threats. This is where the FBI quickly wore out its welcome.
Organizations representing Arab Americans contend that agents asked citizens about their political beliefs, their attitudes toward the Persian Gulf crisis, Saddam Hussein and their knowledge or suspicions about possible terrorism. Deputy Attorney General William P. Barr denies any FBI intention to intimidate Arab Americans, as some community leaders fear. `At the same time,' he says, `in the light of the terrorist threats . . . it is only prudent to solicit information about potential terrorist activity and to request the future assistance of these individuals.'
But why does the government presume that Americans of Arab descent should know about `potential terrorist activity' or that this group of Americans is any more knowledgeable about such activity than any other? FBI spokesman Thomas F. Jones says it's because the bureau is aware of a number of terrorist organizations in the United States that `consist of people of Middle East descent' and that the `possibility exists that [terrorists] are living in Arab-American communities.' In that way, he said, Arab Americans `could come into possession of information on potential terrorist acts.'
It is a perilously flimsy rationale. It leaves the U.S. government wide open to the accusation that it is dividing Americans by ethnic background and singling out one group as a suspect class. If that were true, the government's conduct would clearly be constitutionally offensive and morally repugnant. To imply that Arab Americans--some of whom are members of families that have been in this country since the turn of the century--may have a special link to terrorists is both insidious and harmful. The government cannot go around making judgments and presumptions about citizens on the basis of their descent.
Like all Americans, Arab Americans have the right to be accepted and treated as individuals, and the government has a constitutional duty to observe and protect that right. Neither should the government invade the privacy or trample the dignity of one class of citizens. What is being seen now recalls the negative stereotyping that served as a basis for the shameful treatment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Such stereotyping, with all its ugly and unfair implications, should not be allowed to take hold.
With an Iraqi war looming, it is only proper for the FBI in metropolitan Detroit, the home of one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East, to put its ear to the ground. It is conceivable that some terrorist organization might try some mischief in U.S. territory. Such threats have been made, and they cannot be ignored by the agency that is in charge of counterespionage and anti-terrorist activities inside the United States.
What the FBI does not have a mandate to do, though, is to launch a campaign of harassment and intimidation against a whole group of metro Detroit residents only because of their ethnic origin. Unfortunately, this is what the local FBI office seems to be doing.
Hal Helterhoff, the agent in charge of the Michigan FBI office, announced a program Monday of questioning members of the Arab community in order to solicit `their cooperation in assessing the potential for terrorism.' Far from making everyone feel more secure, Mr. Helterhoff's action raises several disturbing questions.
If confidential information is really what the agency is after, why the hype? Does the FBI truly believe that the best way to secure cooperation from a tightly knit community in East Dearborn is to single it out and anger and frighten it by spreading suspicion about it? And what about the civil rights of Arab Americans?
The FBI must--especially in times such as these--develop sources, investigate clues and plan for all sorts of contingencies, including terrorist attacks. The agency is paid to be a little paranoid about Americans' safety. But fanning paranoia about Arabs and Arab Americans is disgraceful and conterproductive, and must end immediately.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has again been guilty of invidious discrimination against Americans of Arabic origin.
In previous years they conducted `Operation Boulder' in which they singled out Arab Americans for disgraceful investigation methods. The plan was cut short by litigation instituted against them by one of their victims. Later they instituted Arab scam, `Abscam' in which agents disguished as phony wealthy `Arabs' attempted to bribe selected U.S. Congressmen.
Apparently not having learned anything from those experiences, the FBI has recently announced its intention to interview leaders of the Arab American Community for information concerning possible acts of terrorism in this country. The plan implies that Arab Americans are somehow involved in acts of terrorism. No ethnic group in America has a better record of patriotism and fidelity to this country than do Arab Americans.
Negative stereotyping of Arab Americans by our own government is at best reprehensible. It is reminiscent of the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans whose loyalty should never have been questioned.
Arab Americans throughout the country have been victims of racially inspired attacks by psydo patriots. The actions of the FBI encourage such anti Arab American attitudes. Judge Newblatt imposed sentence of imprisonment upon a person convicted of harassment of Arab Americans in the Flint area. In doing so he made it clear to that person that what he had done was not an act of patriotsim but was contrary to everything that this country stands for as a free and pluralistic society.
Our stand against such discrimination serves every minority that is a potential victim.
Arab Americans note their appreciation to the Flint Jewish Federation for their resolution expressing condemnation of racially inspired anti Arab American attacks and the negative impact of recent government activity.
Anthony J. Mansour,
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Flint (JCRC), speaking on behalf of the Flint Jewish Federation, the umbrella organization for the organized Jewish Community of Flint today adopted a statement condemning the recent attacks on Arab Americans in a number of cities in the United States. In addition to these concerns, the JCRC expressed concerns relating to any open ended government plan aimed at leaders of any specific ethnic community, in this case the American-Arabic community that may have a negative impact on the greater community's perception of Arab Americans. Rather, the JCRC call upon `the appropriate agencies of government to protect the rights and safety of Arab Americans, and to prosecute and punish those who have acted criminally against them.'
The full text of the JCRC statement follows:
`The JCRC of Flint condemns recent nation-wide attacks, both verbal and physical, on Arab Americans. The democratic and cultural pluralism inherent in American society is center to the security and well being of all groups and individuals comprising the population of our country. Strong feelings developed by the current situation in the Persian Gulf cannot be allowed to serve as the source of hostile feelings that might lead of the hostile actions aimed at Americans of the Arab descent.
We are concerned that an open ended government plan to interview leaders of the American Arabic community may have a negative impact on the greater community's perception of Arab Americans. The constitutional protections that guarantee the security of all minorities are best protected and furthered in an atmosphere of open discussion, free expression and absence of bias and bigotry. All manifestations of bigotry and bias are unacceptable and group stereotypes must be rejected and repudiated.
The JCRC further calls upon the appropriate agencies of government to protect the rights and safety of Arab Americans and to prosecute and punish those who have acted criminally in that regard. Furthermore, the JCRC urges all members of our community to exercise sensitivity toward our Arab-American neighbors during this difficult and painful period for our country.'