Fear is a dangerous emotion in times like these. Fourteen people are gunned down without explanation in San Bernardino, and our safe places no longer seem safe. We see enemies in crowds. We get our emotions played by election-year politics.
It becomes easy to betray our values. It’s happened before. It’s happening now.
Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and within a few months Japanese Americans were rounded up and jailed in internment camps across the West. Of the 120,000 people forcibly removed from their homes, two-thirds were American-born, according to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Why were so many citizens rounded up? They had Asian features, like the bombers. In the early days of America’s involvement in World War II, the pervasive fear was that Japanese forces would invade the West Coast. The American public doubted the loyalty of Japanese Americans, and so stood by as their neighbors were incarcerated.
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Muslim Americans haven’t been rounded up in the wake of San Bernardino, but they are feeling under siege. They are feeling that fellow Americans doubt their loyalty. They are feeling like suspects in plain sight, feared by their neighbors and colleagues. And because of all that, they, too, are feeling fear.
“This is the most intense it’s been, the most fearful,” said Basim Elkarra, director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The divisions aren’t new. The horrors of 9/11 ripped open cultural fault lines that changed the landscape for many Muslim Americans. But San Bernardino has amplified the mistrust and suspicion. Before San Bernardino, the threat of Islamic State-inspired terrorism on American soil seemed more remote.
Now, it does not. Authorities believe Pakistani-born Tashfeen Malik and her husband, U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook, were inspired by foreign extremist groups, including the Islamic State. Were they self-radicalized? Part of a larger plot? Officials are still trying to piece it together, to trace a pattern of cause and effect in the bloodbath.
What we know is 14 people are dead because of a massacre planned and executed by Islamic extremists living in our midst. A husband-and-wife team who were willing to abandon their baby daughter and cut down their colleagues in the name of a bigoted, hateful ideology.
We don’t know why they did it. And we don’t know when it might happen again. So we feel vulnerable. Americans are more afraid of another terrorist attack than at any time since 9/11, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll.
The manifestations of that fear are rising around us.
In the extreme is Donald Trump, who is not so much afraid as predatory, preying on our sense of vulnerability. He calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., a stance as poisonous as it is ignorant, and yet it finds resonance with a fearful audience, and his numbers continue to climb.
The blind backlash is playing out in smaller ways, just as insidious.
On Thursday, the Santa Clara office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was evacuated after a threatening letter arrived that contained a suspicious white powder. No one was injured. But three people were hospitalized as a precaution.
On Friday, someone intentionally set fire to a mosque in Coachella, an attack authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime.
A California corrections employee is under investigation after being caught on cellphone video first berating, then throwing her coffee at a Muslim man praying in a Castro Valley park.
“The people you tortured are going to spend an eternity in Heaven,” Denise Slader, a program technician with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was recorded as saying. “You are very deceived by Satan. Your mind has been taken over and brainwashed, and you have nothing but hate.”
She was condemning a stranger in a park for the deadly actions of extremists, who shared his religion in name but not substance. It’s like condemning all Christians for the actions of Robert Dear, the guy accused of killing three and wounding nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.
Mohamed Abdul-Azeez knows what it’s like to feel condemned for the actions of crazy people. The former imam of a large mosque in North Highlands, Azeez has been hearing from friends and associates about a rising tide of Islamophobia in the Sacramento area.
According to CAIR, roughly 75,000 Muslims live in our region. Azeez and Elkarra are looking into reports of school bullying. Azeez has a doctor friend who has grown fearful of wearing her hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women, in public.
“My own daughter, who is in sixth grade, was having an argument with another student at her school,” Azeez said. “They were arguing about soccer when the other student said, ‘Are you going to blow up the school now? Because that’s what you people do.’ ”
He worries it’s just a matter of time before these sentiments boil over.
“Americans are having a debate about whether Muslims should be allowed in this country,” Azeez said. “It’s just a matter of time before the debate is whether Muslims should be allowed to stay. Some debates should be allowed, others extinguished.
“While this debate goes on, Muslim parents are holding their children close.”
And so the circle of fear continues to spread.