Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies

Chapter 8

Key Observations Based on Forum Testimony

In July 2002, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights strongly reiterated its commitment to protecting the rights of vulnerable groups in the post-September 11 environment, affirming that:

combating terrorism should never become a war against Arab Americans or Muslims, or any group based on religion or national origin. . . . Maintaining a secure homeland does not justify discrimination against Arab Americans and others today, any more than World War II justified the internment of innocent Japanese Americans over a half century ago.[1]

The April 2002 forum in Annandale, Virginia, conducted as a joint project by the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees provided a wealth of information on the post-September 11 backlash and on threats to civil liberties related to the government’s war on terrorism. The forum also called attention to positive efforts to prevent hate violence and discrimination and to increase dialogue and understanding between members of the affected communities and others.

Based on the testimony at the forum, the Inter-SAC Committee offers three broad observations about the way forward.

Observation 1:

Hate violence and discrimination have had a severe impact on people of Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh backgrounds in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and across the United States, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

These groups, which are solidly part of American society, publicly condemned the September 11 attacks and want to see the perpetrators brought to justice. Nonetheless, over the past year persons of Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh backgrounds, as well as others mistaken for members of these communities, have been made scapegoats and subjected to intense hate violence, harassment, and discrimination in various arenas of public life.

The hundreds of hate incidents documented across the country in the weeks and months following September 11 have included murder, attempted murder, assault, death threats, and hate speech against individuals, as well as vandalism, arson, and threats against homes, schools, businesses, and places of worship. Individuals wearing distinctive dress, that is, Muslim women and Sikhs, appear to have been singled out frequently for attacks. Like most parts of the country, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area saw an increase in reported hate incidents. However, immediately after the hijackings local authorities began proactive outreach to vulnerable groups and took steps to protect them, such as by stationing police cruisers outside mosques. These efforts continued for some weeks afterward and may have helped to prevent more serious injuries in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

While reported hate incidents have tapered off gradually since September 2001, the Inter-SAC Committee takes very seriously the continuing threat of violence against innocent people who are in no way to blame for the terrorist atrocities and who, in a sense, form a second set of victims of the September 11 attacks. The U.S. war in Iraq has raised new concerns about the possibility of a renewed surge of discrimination and violence against people of Middle Eastern background in the United States. Local law enforcement should be vigilant in identifying and promptly prosecuting alleged perpetrators of hate violence, and should continue working with the affected communities and interested organizations to track and prosecute violations. Where appropriate, charges should also be brought under federal hate crime statutes.

Discrimination against people who appear to be Arab, South Asian, Muslim, or Sikh is proving to be a persistent problem as well, particularly in the workplace and in air travel. Panelists reported that ethnic, national, and religious discrimination is rampant within the nation’s air travel system, even though federal agencies have advised the airlines that it is illegal. Of particular concern are cases in which travelers have been denied boarding or removed from aircraft after having passed through security screening, or have been required to remove religiously mandated head coverings for no legitimate reason. Mechanisms are in place for members of the public to file complaints about airline discrimination, and representatives of federal agencies said at the forum that these complaints are investigated thoroughly. But it is not clear that the process of filing complaints is doing much to prevent new instances of discrimination in the absence of standardized and consistently enforced security policies, procedures, and training for airline personnel.

In responding to the backlash, the federal government appears to be playing an inconsistent role that contains both positive and negative elements. The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has publicly warned against hate violence and discrimination, created a special post-September 11 initiative, reached out to vulnerable communities, and opened 350 investigations into alleged hate crimes as well as numerous civil investigations into noncriminal bias incidents. The department’s Community Relations Service has been working with communities across the country on state and local responses to hate incidents. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was commended for its responsiveness to complaints of workplace discrimination.

At the same time, several panelists representing affected communities reported that official statements of concern by high-ranking federal officials and receptiveness to complaints by various government agencies frequently are not followed up with action. Furthermore, the federal government has sent contradictory messages through its actions. While some officials are verbally cautioning Americans not to engage in ethnic or religious discrimination, other federal authorities are actively making use of ethnic and religious profiling as they round up members of these communities for questioning, detention, and deportation. When federal agents knock down doors of Arab American homes and handcuff the residents, or select people for interrogation apparently based on their ethnic or religious background, and without adequate public explanation, these actions have a negative impact on our country. They send a strong message to members of the public that their Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh neighbors are likely to be guilty of something—even if the government never says what. This contributes to an environment in which members of the public feel free to act on whatever feelings of fear, anger, and hate they may harbor.

Observation 2:

Tactics currently being used to pursue the federal government’s war on terrorism pose a threat to civil liberties, and history gives reason to doubt their potential effectiveness. The government can and should pursue an effective antiterrorism strategy that fully respects the Constitution.

A theme running through the forum presentations was that “history repeats itself.” Panelists noted that the current roundups, detentions, and deportations of foreign-born persons under conditions of secrecy and without access to legal counsel recall some of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history, including the Palmer raids in 1919 and the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. They further observed that many of the tactics being used in the government’s antiterrorist efforts, such as the attempt to establish guilt based on association and use of secret evidence, were also used in past investigations such as COINTELPRO in the 1960s. After the domestic spying abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, a series of rules and constraints was imposed to limit the government’s power over citizens; but since September 11 many of these checks and balances have been eliminated or suspended, with worrisome implications for civil liberties.

The USA Patriot Act gives the government sweeping new enforcement powers with far-reaching implications. These new powers are being applied without meaningful judicial review. They apply to all federal investigations, not only those related to terrorism, and they have been used to conduct interrogations and to raid homes of U.S. citizens and other legal residents without allowing them access to normal legal protections. Thus these serious threats to civil liberties affect the whole nation.

Panelists identified two major problems with the tactics being used. First, they are likely to be ineffective.[2] Ethnic and religious profiling, reliance on guilt by association and secret evidence, and exemption of government actions from oversight and accountability have failed in the past to detect actual criminal activity and are likely to prove just as unreliable in the current context. To the extent that government investigators target people based on their ethnic or religious background, these actions are at best inefficient and ineffective protection against terrorism. Profiling by ethnic or religious identity casts too wide a net and does not focus on persons actually engaged in provable criminal activity. Shielding government activity from view and relying on secret evidence run the risk of wasting government resources building empty cases against the wrong individuals.

Second, these tactics are alienating communities whose help the government has said it wants. The federal government has asked Arabs and Muslims in the United States to assist in identifying potential sources of terrorist activity, but at the same time it is angering and intimidating those communities through aggressive violations of their civil rights. Racial profiling, searches, interrogations, detentions, deportations, and violent raids on homes and businesses have led to deep distrust of the authorities among members of the communities targeted. People may want to help the antiterrorism effort with information, but they are hardly likely to come forward if by doing so they risk being detained or deported.

The government must have the powers it needs to ensure the nation’s security, but history shows that we cannot purchase national security by giving up our civil liberties. The government can and must devise an effective antiterrorist strategy that respects the Constitution—by focusing on criminal activity rather than guilt by association; by ensuring judicial review and control; by requiring accountability for results; and by ensuring oversight by Congress, the Justice Department, and outside organizations.

Observation 3:

Efforts are urgently needed to increase the U.S. public’s understanding of Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs, and to promote dialogue between people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Organizations representing Arab Americans and other affected groups have long been concerned about the public’s general lack of knowledge about their communities and the prevalence of negative stereotypes. The events of September 11 reinforced the most damaging stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, setting the stage for hate violence against them and others perceived to resemble them, especially Sikhs. Panelists stressed the urgency of countering this ignorance with education and dialogue, and noted that the tragic events of September 11 have created new opportunities for such efforts.

The Muslim imams, scholars, and advocates who addressed the forum emphasized that Islam is a religion based on concepts of peace, justice, and equity, and has much in common with Christianity and Judaism; the faith condemns suicide and homicide and the killing of unarmed civilians. They stressed that Muslims in the United States overwhelmingly condemned the horrific terrorist acts and reject the notion that these acts are religiously justified by Islam or reflect on the nature of the faith. The panelists examined and debunked key stereotypes, such as the notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy.

In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, efforts to promote understanding between different ethnic and religious groups began well before September 11, 2001, and these efforts provided a firm foundation for the post-September 11 response. Of particular note are programs in schools to promote understanding among different groups of students and parents, as well as interfaith programs and secular community-based programs. The Committee members heard about an initiative called Kaleidoscope, which brings together the diverse populations of Mason District in Fairfax County, Virginia, and which could serve as a model for other communities. In the months since the attacks, additional programs have been initiated in school systems and communities around Washington, D.C., aimed at bringing people together and building understanding and tolerance.

Nonetheless, communities, schools, and religious bodies must do more, by redoubling their support for successful programs and creating new initiatives modeled on best practices. A recurring theme of the backlash is the targeting of violence and discrimination against individuals whose dress is distinctive, especially those who wear head coverings—the hijabs worn by some Muslim women and the turbans worn by nearly all observant Sikhs. These articles of clothing appear to have become, in the minds of some Americans, symbols of foreignness, of “otherness,” even of terrorism and sympathy for Osama bin Laden. At the most basic level, therefore, steps should be taken to educate the public about the meaning of religiously mandated clothing and hairstyles in a variety of faiths. Beyond that, communities have much work to do in the difficult but critically important task of teaching tolerance and respect for differences in religion, language, culture, and appearance that are so much a part of American society today.

[1] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Civil Rights Commission Reaffirms Commitment to Protecting Rights of Arab Americans and Muslims,” press release, July 24, 2002.

[2] As noted in chapter 5, the Inter-SAC Committee invited the Department of Justice to send a representative who could address the department’s antiterrorism policies and procedures regarding their appropriateness and effectiveness. However, the office charged with communicating department policies to the public declined the invitation to participate. (See footnote 4, page 20).