By Ray Hanania
When a recreational vehicle parked on a street in a major tourist area of Nashville, Tennessee exploded on Christmas Day, police officers were hesitant to call it an act of terrorism.
The massive bomb, placed in a motorhome of the kind used for road-trip travel, exploded in the early hours of the morning. Three people were injured and 41 businesses were affected by property damage, including one building that completely collapsed.
Police said the vehicle had been parked at the site of the explosion for several hours. Shortly before the blast a message was broadcast in English warning people to evacuate the area, accompanied by the 1964 Petula Clark song “Downtown.”
Police are still trying to determine a motive for the attack. Evidence recovered at the scene included DNA from the remains of a person who was in the vehicle. Police suspect they belong to the bomber and that he intended to kill himself in the blast.
Social media was quickly flooded with all kinds of conspiracy theories. The bomber wanted to destroy a nearby AT&T transmission building, for example, over concerns about the effects of 5G networks or fears that they are being used to control people’s minds. Or evidence of stolen ballots from the US presidential election were being stored in the area.
If this attack does not appear to be terrorism, I do not know what does. Yet the FBI and police in Nashville declined to use that word, saying they are investigating the motives and need to connect them to an “ideology” before they can declare it an act of terrorism.
Well, I can tell you that whenever there is an act of violence in the US and the suspect is Arab or Muslim, there is never any hesitation by the authorities and the news media in labeling it as an act of “terrorism.”
In the minds of many Americans terrorism is a culture, not a political form of violence intended to achieve a specific goal. Although, to be honest, I cannot imagine any act of violence, outside of accidental violence, that does not have as a goal the desire to be destructive and harmful.
The hesitation to declare the Nashville bombing an act of terrorism raises important questions about the use of stereotypes, racism and even hatred by Americans to label those they dislike — and Arabs and Muslims have never been popular in the US.
I know this from firsthand experience. I served honorably in the US military during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, and for 12 more years in the Air National Guard, joining thousands of other Arab Americans who have served this country patriotically.
But that wasn’t enough for the FBI and the powers that be at the time. The FBI investigated me for two years because I wrote a letter defending Palestinian rights that was published in two once-prominent national magazines, Time and Newsweek.
I was investigated because I am Arab — and since most Americans do not know the difference between Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, they suspected I was a “Muslim terrorist.”
In fact, as a Christian Palestinian Arab my first reaction whenever there is an act of violence is one of concern and hope that the person responsible for it is not an Arab, just to avoid the vicious and immediate backlash that will inevitably follow.
There is no doubt in my mind — and, I am sure, the minds of the majority of Arabs and Muslims — that had the suspect in Nashville been identified as Arab or a Muslim, the US would already be placing the military on alert for a possible attack on a target.
Instead of conspiracy theories about voter fraud or the effect of technologies such as 5G on our minds, the discussions would be about the Arab and Muslim “threat.” Stories in the news media would be filled with concerns about violence by Arabs and Muslims, and before we know it the Nashville bombing would be eclipsed by attacks on innocent people who happen to be “Arab-looking” or “Muslim-looking.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, dozens of Arabs and Muslims in the US were targeted in revenge attacks, along with many of their businesses. Several people were killed simply because they “looked” Arab or Muslim. Among the dead were several non-Arabs, including Pakistanis and Sikhs. Yet they are not on the list of victims of Sept. 11, even though that is clearly what they were.
The logic against recognizing their suffering as being related to the attacks seems to be simple: how can people perceived, even wrongly, as being “terrorists” also be the victims of terrorism?
That kind of logic is also exactly what continues to emanate from American society in response to the violence perpetrated by Israeli authorities against Arab or Muslim civilians. Every day, Israeli soldiers arrest, beat or kill Palestinians. On Dec. 21, for example, they shot and killed a 17-year-old named Mahmoud Omar Kameel in occupied Jerusalem’s Old City. The Israeli PR spin alleged that he had fired a weapon at the soldiers.
Very few major media outlets reported on the killing, which was covered mostly by a few “pro-Arab” blogs, so the Israeli claims that Kameel was armed were just accepted as truth. The Israelis quickly labeled him a “terrorist.” Why not? He was an Arab and a Muslim, after all.
That “terrorist” label defines how the public views acts of violence and determines the level of anger in response — and fuels revenge. It determines the level of response.
In America, no one will destroy the home of the family of the Nashville bombing suspect, who has been identified as Anthony Quinn Warner. But you can bet the Israelis will destroy the home of the family of Mahmoud Omar Kameel, the Arab and Muslim. We probably will not know about such retribution for weeks, or maybe months, because it is rarely reported.
As Arabs and Muslims, we should be concerned. We should be concerned that the West views us as guilty until proven innocent when we are accused of crimes. We should be concerned that different standards are applied to us when it comes to violent acts of terrorism: Arabs and Muslims are judged as being guilty almost immediately. Even when the suspect cannot immediately be identified, the suspicion of Arab or Muslim involvement is often deliberate and pronounced.
If a group is automatically viewed as being “guilty” of terrorism — or almost anything else — it makes it easier to marginalize the concerns, rights and humanity of members of that group.
That’s why it seems so easy for the West to condemn and kill Arabs and Muslims in response to violent acts, while deliberating long and hard about similar acts of violence committed by non-Arabs and non-Muslims.