It will be some time before federal authorities determine conclusively who was responsible for Wednesday afternoon's gruesome bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that left at least 21 dead--among them 17 children. Already, however, the prognosticators have begun to debate about who is responsible.
The bombing occurred on the second anniversary of the FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, leading some to conclude that supporters of David Koresh's organization might be responsible.
Yet, far more prevalent are the suggestions that somehow, some way, an Islamic terrorist organization is behind this most recent atrocity. While it is altogether sensible to entertain this possibility, it is absolutely critical to maintain the sharp distinction between the Islamic radicals who may have been responsible for this ferocious act and the community of American Muslims and Arabs.
Such a distinction seems obvious, so much so that it hardly bears mentioning. And yet, this simple logic is lost on a good deal of Americans, to say nothing of Americans, journalists. In movies, on television and in magazines, 'Arab' and `Muslim' are often buzz words for gun-wielding, grenade tossing, Qu'rantoting fanatics bent on destroying the imperialist, materialist Satan that is the United States. When was the last time you saw an Arab `good guy' on your television screen?
What is especially hideous and dangerous about this form of racism is that it can be practiced subtly. A respected investigative journalist claimed in a television interview last night that the Arab American community must do more to contain the violent element that resides in its midst. That comment captures the tenor of the majority of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments that can be found everywhere.
The author of such a claim disarms the audience by suggesting that he can distinguish between a terrorist who kills in the name of Islam and the larger Arab or Muslim community. And yet, at the same time, he confounds his own logic, planting the seed in his audience's imagination for lumping all the people with the funny Middle Eastern names into one great, big and undivided whole. Doubtless, some of his very best friends are Arabs.
None of this means, of course, that we should not tirelessly pursue all leads in the Oklahoma bombing, or that Islamic terrorist cells are not obvious candidates for responsibility. Organizations ranging from the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria to Hamas in Israel and the occupied territories, from Hizbollah in Lebanon to Sheikh Rahman and friends in New Jersey, have wreaked havoc on civilian targets in the name of Islam. States across the Middle East from Iran to the Sudan have proved themselves able and willing to sponsor this brand of terror throughout the West.
Nonetheless, the existence of these radical Islamic cells has absolutely no implication for the overwhelming majority of American Arabs and Muslims. If anything, American Muslims are embarrassed by the sort of violent and extremist behavior that is carried out in their name.
When suspects are rounded up in the Oklahoma City bombing it will not be a great surprise if Islamic radicals have had nothing at all to do with it. It will also not be a tremendous surprise if they have. After the World Trade Center bombing a couple of years ago, Americans can no longer operate with the naive assumption that it cannot happen here.
But even if Muslim extremists are found to be responsible, we must redouble our efforts to resist the sloppy and hateful logic that associates all Muslims and Arabs with acts of terror. During the first few hours after the bombing in Oklahoma City, the Arab American Council in New York received no fewer than 16 bomb threats. This only underscores the fact that Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim prejudice is, regrettably, alive and well in our society. We must not tolerate this ugly and insidious brand of racism.
Samuel J. Rascoff's column appears on alternate Fridays.