Stereotypes and scapegoating after Chelsea

September 21, 2016

Once it became known that the men responsible for attacks in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota were Muslim, a familiar script began to play out, writes Danny Katch.

A SERIES of bombings and attempted bombings in New York and New Jersey last Saturday, along with a mass stabbing in Minnesota on the same day, have kicked off a new cycle of fear, confusion, bigotry and political opportunism--all with the added element of coming less than two months before the presidential election.

As of this writing, no group has claimed responsibility for or affiliation with Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in police custody for setting a bomb in the Chelsea neighborhood that injured 29 people, and another in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, that exploded with nobody around. Rahami apparently planted a number of bombs that didn't go off, and he is also charged with wounding two officers in a confrontation after they found him sleeping in the doorway of a bar on Monday morning.

On the other hand, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) quickly claimed that Dahir Adan, the 20-year-old Somali-American suspect in police custody for the stabbings of 10 people at a mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, was acting on its behalf.

Investigators at the bombing site in Manhattan's Chelsea
Investigators at the bombing site in Manhattan's Chelsea

Far more is unknown than known about the specific causes and motivations of these events. But facts were hardly necessary once it became known that the suspects in both cases were Muslim.

In Year 15 of the Era of the "War on Terror," all the major actors learned their lines long ago: Republicans called for holy war and blamed Democrats for helping the terrorists by being weak. And Democrats called for secular war and blamed Republicans for helping the terrorists by being ignorant.

The media, of course, played their part, too. With every passing hour, new details of the suspects' lives were spooned out, each one cast in the most sinister possible light.

For example, the press noted ominously that Rahami had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years--usually without pointing out that the vast majority of immigrants with the money and legal status to do so make trips to visit family back home.

Don't expect the fact that the Minnesota assailant Adan had previously worked for global security giant Securitas--just as Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen had worked at G4S--to attract nearly as much attention.

The New York Times got so caught up in its orientalist portrayal of Rahami as a young man "teetering between two worlds" of modern liberal America and ancient Islamic Afghanistan that its article portrayed a situation common in many families--Rahami's father was mad when his son had a baby with a high school girlfriend--as the result of the father being "religious and traditional."

The familiar sequence of reactions are all squarely within the well-worn path of the "war on terror"--further reinforcing its dubious logic and sinking us all ever deeper into its vicious cycle.

DONALD TRUMP quickly and predictably seized the attacks as another opportunity to blame America's decline on whatever civil liberties this country still has left.

Repeating his usual calls for racial profiling and immigration bans, Trump also declared that Rahami, who is a U.S. citizen, should nevertheless be tried as an enemy combatant. Oh, and he complained that Rahami would receive medical treatment in a hospital.

Trump supporter and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued the standard Republican complaint that Democrats aren't "willing to talk about radical Islamic terrorism"--and then insisted that "they're attacking us... because they don't like the fact that America stands for freedom and liberty. They don't like the fact that we defend the defenseless. They don't like the fact that we speak for human rights and equal opportunity."

This is standard Republican doublespeak: Attack civil liberties as "politically correct" nonsense in one breath, and then claim that our civil liberties separate the U.S. from its barbarian enemies in the next.

For her part, Hillary Clinton responded to the attacks by arguing that Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric has made him a "recruiting sergeant for the terrorists"--the kind of wildly inflammatory accusation that is actually Trump's specialty.

It's true that both ISIS and right-wing Islamophobes like Trump share a "clash of civilizations" worldview that reinforces the reactionaries on both sides, at the expense of the majority of people who want to live in peace and harmony.

But Trump and the Republicans aren't the only ones pushing war and bigotry. As a U.S. senator, Clinton voted to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and as Secretary of State under Barack Obama, she supported Iraq's violently sectarian Shia-dominated government. Both of those actions are far more responsible for the rise of ISIS than Trump's racist clown show.

It's also worth noting that the Obama administration is already quietly carrying out the racial/religious profiling and border closings that Trump loudly calls for.

After the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, carried out by a couple who pledged their loyalty to ISIS, Obama signed legislation that made it harder for Europeans to enter the U.S. if they had dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or had visited one of those countries in the previous five years.

And as of this May, the U.S. had allowed fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees to enter the country--a historically criminal response in the face of one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the young 21st century, and one that speaks just as loudly as Trump's verbal diarrhea about what the U.S. thinks about Arabs and Muslims.

IN NEW York City, the media obsessed over the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't initially use the word "terrorism" to describe the Chelsea bombings--unlike his Democratic colleague and inter-party rival Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This supposedly meaningful distinction obscures the fact that both sides subscribe to the view that "terrorism" only applies to acts committed by official U.S. enemies.

A dangerous new precedent was set early Monday morning when millions of New Yorkers received an emergency text message that read: "Emergency Alert: Wanted: Ahmed Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen."

Authorities credited the text with helping them find Rahami. But we don't yet know how many hate crimes or false leads this alarming but completely vague alert caused by asking the population of the country's largest city to be on the lookout for a young man who looks like he might have Middle Eastern ancestry.

Nonetheless, de Blasio--the public official with a weak response, remember?--praised the mass emergency alert as "a modern approach that really engages the whole community."

But "really engaging the whole community" means standing up against Islamophobic attacks, recognizing that Muslims have been by far the greatest victims of terrorism across the world--and identifying the U.S. culture of violence abroad and at home as a major factor in causing these attacks.

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