Releasing the Hounds by Laura Fokkena

Four or five years prior to September 11, I created a small web page reviewing English-language children's books with Middle Eastern themes. As I recall there weren't more than two dozen such books at the time, once I'd weeded out the ones featuring mummies and pyramids, but it was a fun project anyway and I enjoyed working on it. It was 1997 or so, and my page bore all the sad hallmarks of its era: competing fonts, a loud background that bled into my hand-coded tables, a guestbook with pop-up banners, the whole lot of it hosted for free on Geocities.
Nevertheless, if you build it they will come, and I soon realized that in spite of a total lack of promotion this small section had become the most popular part of my homepage. I eventually moved it onto its own server, took out a domain name, and added information about Islam, cross-cultural parenting and immigration law, reviews of toys and software, a section on "famous Arab-Americans" (who knew Tiny Tim was Arab?), a mailing list, discussion board, and various other features. A small network of interested families became regular visitors and to my delight the page was linked from much larger sites that catered to Arab-Americans and Muslim families living in North America.
Then came September 11, and my logs exploded. It was the kind of insta-popularity that was every webmaster's dream, and I suppose I should have been grateful to have had a platform to contextualize the tragedy and counter the Islam- and Arab-bashing that had suddenly come into vogue. That was the point of the site in the first place, right? To provide information and resources? Yet within a week I took the whole thing offline.
Cowardly? Perhaps. But my ex-husband was insisting that our daughter shouldn't publicly identify herself as an Arab or a Muslim, and though I felt this was overkill, that the abstract damage to her self-esteem in having to hide her identity outweighed the actual threat of harassment, I did appreciate that my need to discuss children's literature on the internet was secondary to this child's physical safety. Her name was included in the very title of the site, after all, and it linked to pictures of her seven-year-old self in ponytails.
Those first few months were a confusing and emotionally charged time, and over the next three years it became increasingly hard to tell where one stood on the denial-to-paranoia continuum. They won't really bomb the rubble that is Afghanistan, I thought. And then they did. They won't really pass the Patriot Act, I thought. And then they did. They won't really suggest that average citizens inform on each other, I thought. And then they did. They won't really invade Iraq, I thought. And then they did. They won't really torture prisoners in detention, I thought. And then they did. They won't really re-elect Bush, I thought. And then they did. Now I'm telling myself they won't really attack Iran or Syria.
But friends? I am sensing a theme.
Let me be clear that I never thought that the world would be perfect with John Kerry in the White House. My vote for a Democrat this election was as far as I'm willing to travel to the right, and I only cast that vote because the depths of my hatred for the neocons, John Ashcroft, and the current administration make Kenneth Starr's feelings toward Bill Clinton look downright kittenish. My post-election disappointment has little to do with my feelings about either Bush or Kerry as individuals.
No, my reaction is bundled up in my fear of the word "mandate." In one of his first public appearances after Nov. 2, Bush told reporters the election had earned him political capital and he intended to spend it. One shudders at the notion that he's been holding back on us for the past four years, and I can only imagine the treat we'll be in for between now and 2008. But even that doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Bush, after all, never needed the will of the people to legitimize his policies (though I guess it was nice of him to pretend otherwise, at least for a day). What really scares me is what my fellow Americans, regular people, plan to do with that word "mandate."
It wasn't the government, after all, but rather those regular people, the citizens next door, who were responsible for the 1,700 percent increase in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims following September 11. It was the people, friends and neighbors and employers, who discovered the use of the anonymous FBI tip as a tool for retribution in petty personal grievances. It was the people, the youth hockey coach and the high school teacher and the manager in men's active wear at Macy's, who used the post-9/11 climate to retaliate against those whose views differed from their own.
And it was the people who provided legitimacy to the Patriot Act through their support of policies that erode the Fourth Amendment, from holding terrorist suspects in detention indefinitely (48% approval), to wiretapping telephones (69%), intercepting e-mail (72%), and monitoring citizens' internet-browsing habits (82%).
I don't mean to argue that the Bush administration is earnest and well-meaning and oh dear, help, whatever can it do when a few bad apples take things too far. This was not the case in Abu Ghraib, where orders came from the top and were carried out by young soldiers with little or no training, and it is not the case with any of their other policies. As a Bush aid told New York Times Magazine writer Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."
They don't ask permission from their own population, much less the world community, before they take action. Fine. We know this. What's alarming is the unambiguous pride they take in this fact, and the corresponding approval that decisiveness received from the American public. Bush staked his campaign on portraying Kerry as a wishy-washy flip-flopper -- in other words, someone who re-thinks his positions when he receives new information or believes old policies to be unacceptable to the majority of Americans. Oh, the horror: a president in a democracy who responds to the will of the people, rather than the other way around. Those who voted for Bush because they saw him as "a strong leader" voted for their own disenfranchisement in the process, and they apparently did so willingly and happily.
It's chilling.
And I don't mean that as hyperbole. For Muslims and those of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, the current political climate is literally chilling: it makes you afraid to trust your neighbors, afraid of having a conversation in a public diner, afraid to attend the mosque because you know it's under surveillance, afraid to call yesterday's FBI visit what it is -- an example of ethnic profiling -- in case someone decides you aren't being "cooperative," afraid that your name will end up on the no-fly list, afraid you'll be detained for months in solitary confinement for minor visa violations (and possibly threatened, beaten, or sexually assaulted while you're there), afraid that even tangential connections to other Arabs and Muslims might be questioned years later, and deeply afraid that the thinnest of allegations could have your friends and relatives deported to totalitarian regimes to be interrogated under torture.
Lawyers who represent Arabs and Muslims have also seen their civil liberties threatened, as have journalists covering their stories and the activists who are defending them, which, one can presume, leaves persecuted individuals in an even more precarious position: when they can no longer depend on media attention or legal representation, what recourse do they have? I have read liberals and conservatives alike who mock the "empty threats" of disgruntled citizens who insist they're moving to Canada in protest of the elections -- ha ha, what an extreme solution! ha ha, how outlandish! -- even as Muslim families are quietly doing so in droves. Pakistani families seem to have been affected most strongly by anti-Muslim discrimination and ethnic profiling, a particularly cruel irony given that U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan would be untenable without the cooperation of Pakistan.
A friend recently called Arabs and Muslims the canary in the coal mine for this particular social experiment we are witnessing. How much will the American people endure before they call foul and fight back? Quite a bit, as it turns out, if the treatment of Middle Easterners provides a test case.
In a few instances the government really did overstep its bounds. The popular outcry against Operation TIPS -- the proposal to enlist the help of plumbers, electricians, meter readers and others who had access to the homes of average citizens to report on what they found there -- ensured that the plan as originally written was DOA almost immediately after the story hit the press. But in general Americans have been remarkably accepting of the infringement on their civil liberties, the introduction of a surveillance culture, the invitation to report on their neighbors, the collection of secret evidence, an increase in racial profiling, the willingness to hold enemy combatants indefinitely without trial, and state-sanctioned torture. They have questioned the President's "lie" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and have complained about the price of oil, but they've had little to say about the neocons' over-arching imperialist project in the Middle East. In 1857, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
So why have we rolled over? Well, most Americans have said outright that they find all these new policies justified in the so-called Age Of Terror, and the fact that such aggressive tactics have led to so few arrests -- never mind that Bin Laden is still at large -- does little to change their minds. For others the acquiescence might stem from apathy, or perhaps a sense of powerlessness. In some cases I'm sure it's a subtle and insidious form of racism that mistakenly assumes these issues are confined to the Middle Eastern community, and as such are simply not a priority. But for many, I imagine -- and I include myself in this category -- it is the fear of looking like a crackpot alarmist, a fear that open dissent will attract attention to myself or my family, and an inability to accept that yes, as a matter of fact, things have gotten rather bad indeed.
I keep waiting for the magical moment when the people will stand up as one and express their astonishment, will say they put up with this and they put up with that but they have now reached their breaking point. (Clearly I've watched that Eminem video too many times.) Just yesterday I read that the U.S. reversed a 70-year ban on admitting evidence gained by torture and for a second had that same fleeting hope that this, this! is what it will take to turn the tide. But that hope passed as quickly as it appeared.
There will be no magic moment, of course. That's the way things like this work. You get acclimated to one small change, and then another, and then another, and pretty soon the whole thing is just overwhelming; no one action has the power to induce the necessary shock and awe. In 1963 Hannah Arendt wrote about "the banality of evil," an acknowledgment that human rights abuses need not be the dramatic jetliner-into-the-skyscraper sort, but rather the result of bureaucratic decisions made in offices as the result of plain thoughtlessness ("something by no means identical with stupidity"). She was covering the Eichmann trial, and noted "[t]hat such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together."
My daughter, at the time of September 11 a seven-year-old in ponytails, is now an almost-eleven-year-old who has come into her political awakening against a backdrop of prejudice and fear. She has absorbed the sobering warning that some issues are best kept private, that there are certain opinions that are okay to broadcast publicly but that others one keeps safely within the family, a message I never in a million years would have imagined I would be giving to a child of mine raised within the United States.
Of course for many families this is nothing new. For centuries African-Americans have taught their children to adhere to a one-way flow of information when it came to dealing with white people. (Their messages can get in, but ours don't get out, you understand?) The very fact that a book like Heather Has Two Mommies has to exist in the first place in order to bring attention to the issue of gay parenting only points to the silence around the subject in everyday life. I imagine that in most cases Heather understands perfectly well that when she is in school or at the grocery store she has just one (1) mommy, and that her mommy has "a roommate."
The selective silence of persecuted groups is as old as history itself, and I don't claim to be original in my fury. But after Nov. 2 we have come one step closer to creating a culture that normalizes discrimination and inequity, a culture that uses the cloak of democracy to justify bigotry and political persecution. Assuming the election was conducted fairly, a majority of the population -- however slim the margin -- has endorsed the biases, fears, and prejudices of this administration, thought them good and right and prudent, and I for one fear the consequences of a country jacked up this high on patriotic propaganda even more than I fear whatever Dick Cheney might be plotting from his undisclosed location. He and his colleagues are welcome to sit in as many think tanks as they like and write position papers until their fingers fall off, but once their ideas secure popular support (or at least popular neglect), well, that's a horse of a different color.
And maybe this isn't the end of the world, isn't the introduction of Stalinism, fascism, oh! oh! Handmaid's Tale, hello George Orwell, but, close election notwithstanding, it's a bit of a downer to be told that your country belongs to someone else, that you are sort of a guest, and you'll be allowed to sleep on the good sheets and use the soap in the bathroom so long as you mind your manners and don't track muddy footprints on the floor. This is the difference between life under Bush post-Florida and life under Bush post-Ohio. Righteous indignation comforted me, frankly: I wanted to believe our government had been temporarily hijacked. In the last three years the left became more organized than it had been in three decades, and yet in the end it wasn't enough. Our base swelled, but not as much as theirs did.
It's true that regime change might not have brought drastic changes for the country -- a real shift has to occur at the local grassroots level -- but a presidential election is nevertheless the mother of all opinion polls. The day after the election I forced myself to confront reality: millions of Americans have more contempt for gay marriage than they have for Abu Ghraib. It doesn't matter that the candidates had similar positions on the first issue and never debated the second. It was the perception of their positions that made all the difference, and for the majority of the country the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions just didn't make the "values" cut.
That's where we are right now. Where we'll go from here I have no idea; I admit I'm still floundering on that denial-to-paranoia continuum. I stand on the fulcrum of a see-saw, American friends on the one side telling me all my doubts are cynical and pessimistic, bordering on hysterical, while Middle Easterners on the other side are wading through miles of secret evidence to get friends and family members out of detention and telling me whatever latent faith I do have in the American justice system is naive and unhelpful, bordering on idiotic. I teeter-totter back and forth, feeling shrill on some days and overly complacent on others.
In the meantime I comfort myself with the words of Martin Luther King: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
I need to remember that. Four more years.
Laura Fokkena lives in Boston.