Arab Americanscan be forgiven if they slam their doors when the FBI comes knocking. The government says it is gathering information about potential acts of terrorism and at the same time offering to protect Arab-Americans against racist hate crimes.
But where was the FBI in 1985, when an Arab American was killed in a terrorist bombing in Los Angeles? The suspect, thought to be working for the militant Jewish Defense League, fled to Israel. But in six years the federal government has done little to bring him to account.
All Americans are concerned, and many are fearful, about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism. It is a time to be more vigilant about where we go and what we do. But it is also a time to be more vigilant about the violation of civil liberties of Americans who are singled out for reasons of race, creed or ethnic origin. Despite the war with Iraq, anti-Arabism should be as repugnant in the United States as antisemitism or bigotry against anyone.
The FBI has conducted more than 200 interviews with Americans of Arab descent. The agents have been polite, as ordered. But there is such a thing as polite harassment. If you knew a suspected terrorist, the FBI might have cause to come knocking at your door. If you yourself had been engaging in some peculiar behavior -- buying dynamite, making threatening calls to the White House -- the FBI would have even more reason to come knocking on your door, and would not have to bother with politeness. But the interviews have been conducted without probable cause.
In 1986 the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service drew up a contingency plan to quarantine Arab Americans at a camp in Oakdale, La., in the event of a war with Arab states. When the plan was exposed in 1987, the INS denounced it and threw it in the trash can. But government garbage cans have a way of coughing up such trash.
Arab Americans remember two incidents in October of 1985 that taught them that the FBI considers them a sub-class. One was the terrorist attack on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean. The terrorists murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American from New York. In that case, the country reacted as it should have. Media coverage was extraordinary, and the government swung into action. The U.S. military forced down an Egyptian plane with some suspects on board.
Several days after Klinghoffer was killed, Alex Odeh, the balding, respected regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Los Angeles, was killed in a bombing.
The brutal and cowardly act received a smidgen of media attention. The FBI fingered a member of the Jewish Defense League as a prime suspect. He fled to Israel, where he now lives in the occupied territories. Although the evidence against him is substantial, the United States has not put significant pressure on Israel to extradite him for trial.
War is no excuse to ignore the principles of freedom for which soldiers fight.