As the nation approaches the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an Arab-American Muslim man, his wife and six kids continue to wrap their brains around a terrorist attack that befell them almost two years after the world's attention turned to New York City. This time, it was in West Covina, Calif. This time is was at a Hummer dealership. And this time, it was 8/22 instead of 9/11. For all the dissimilarities between the two events, there was one constant: terrorism. The two events, reinforced by the recent Norway bombing, have taught me this: I'm looking forward to a day when the term "terrorism" is not explicitly linked to "Islam" or "Arabs."
That August 2003, all of my family was shaken out of bed at the usual hour of 5 a.m., just as we had been two years earlier, to the news of an inexplicable terrorist attack.
My father, a Syrian man who had migrated to the states in 1968 and received his citizenship in 1984, arrived only minutes later in jeans, a polo from the '70s, and sandals -- a far cry from his standard suit-and-tie uniform -- to see one of the fruits of his rags-to-riches, American-Dream successes, his Hummer of West Covina dealership, in flames.
Hours later, my father's fears were put to rest. This was not a hate crime targeting his religious or racial background. The culprits of the arson attack, three members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), used our West Covina dealership as the backdrop for a sensationalist stunt to nationally publicize their message: down with "gas-guzzling" Hummers and the "big, fat, lazy Americans" who drive them, as two of the various slogans graffitied onto more than 80 SUVs on the lot stated. About 125 vehicles, ranging in their degree of damage, and a firebombed parts building bore the brunt of the attack. The monetary damages exceeded several million dollars.
Since two of the three suspects fled the country, only one, a doctoral student at Cal Tech, was tried and sentenced to an eight-year term years later.
We received both national and international attention, from The New York Times and the U.K.'s The Independent to features in magazines like Maxim, and we were even the focus of documentary films. As I worked for my father at the time, I was asked to don another hat in addition to my role as Operations Manager, that of Media and Public Relations Representative. Many of these aforementioned publications and others like them contacted me for the story behind "the story." Thus, I was constantly forced to confront points of irony, ambiguity and understandings of justice connected to our story under a media microscope.
Ironically, ELF members chose to target our dealership, a dealership that had sold more electric vehicles than Hummers at that point. In fact, my father had donated electric vehicles to local high schools and colleges.
Another point of complication was the efficacy of the ELF's methods. According to fire officials on the scene, the fire produced by a Molotov cocktail emitted more toxins into the air than all the burned Hummers and SUVs could have done in their entire life cycles! In fact, so detrimental was this to the cause of environmental awareness and protection that even Arianna Huffington issued a statement of disdain in The New York Times with regard to the attack: "'What these people are doing isn't activism -- it is vandalism, and I strongly oppose it."
Now, to the understandings of justice, I had to ask myself: had Arabs or Muslims orchestrated this arson attack, how would the media have portrayed the perpetrators? Yes, the media, from newspapers to TV news coverage, depicted the arsonists as loony extremists. But had they been anything other than white, how different would their portrayal have been? Would the incident still be represented as an isolated one, committed by fringe lunatics like Anders Behring Breivik; James von Brunn, the white supremacist who perpetrated the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting; or Timothy McVeigh? (Maybe you don't remember all these names now, because they belong to the anomalies we are suppose to forget.) Or would a community have to answer for an individual's or a few individuals' deplorable act of violence? Would the accused serve an eight-year prison term or be sent to Guantanamo Bay? As an Arab-American Muslim woman working on a doctorate in American Studies & Ethnicity, questions like these are hard to avoid. And questions like these shed light on the glaring deficiency in our attempts as a nation -- politically, socially and culturally -- to come to terms with the limitations of a certain term.
And there was something else that articles, documentaries and TV news stories failed to capture concerning the uniqueness of this story: the complexity of defining terrorism, and especially domestic terrorism. In light of the incident and others that followed, the FBI started to suggest that "eco-militants," including environmental and animal-rights militants, were the biggest terrorist threat in the U.S. as of 2005. But as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a treasure trove of documentaries, books representing both sensationalistic and investigative journalism, Hollywood action blockbusters, PBS and Christiane Amanpour specials later, there still seems to be a lack of clarity around and an obsession with the term "terrorism" -- and a certain kind of racially and religiously understood "terrorism." Although clear and pointed, the FBI's memo seemed to be lost amid terror-gasmic action films like "Traitor" and "The Kingdom" set in the Muslim world and Saudi Arabia, and fear-mongering pundits like Glenn Beck, who once started an interview with Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison by saying, "[W]hat I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'" Nothing highlighted the complexity surrounding the term more for me then a personal experience I had almost three years ago.
In November 2008 I was invited to participate in a roundtable organized by the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberities, which hand selected 20 Muslim, Arab, South-Asian and Sikh youth leaders in the Los Angeles area to discuss our experiences and perspectives on government policy in the post-9/11 climate. The then-DHS-Secretary, Michael Cherkoff, listened to our concerns and recommendations for government policy, increasing civic engagement, and defining violent radicalism and terrorism. Earlier in the day, the participants were asked by DHS to weigh in on the department's suggested alternative terms for defining terrorism. The one that department officials appeared to flaunt around victoriously, "takfirism," deriving from the Arabic word "takfir," which refers to apostasy in Islam, continued to affirmatively support what the U.S. media and public and even government officials had already suggested: an understanding of "terrorism" in Arab or Muslim terms.
In reaction to the limited scope of application, I presented an anecdotal curve ball to the DHS officials: my father's experience. After recounting my father's story, I implored officials and panel members, "Given my father's case, please tell me how the term 'takfirism' could have protected him? Was he not a victim of terrorism, too? Or, because it wasn't Islamically motivated, was he not to be protected?" A stinging silence fell on the room. It seemed that this "curve ball" conundrum perplexed us all, Cherkoff included. At the end of the day, we resolved to reject the term but did not offer up a replacement. And yet, even as I demonstrated the insufficiency of such religiously-based definitions of terrorism, Cherkoff had decided on "violent Islamic extremism" when we could not offer a term.
I did not then or know now of a viable alternative to the term or our standardized references to terrorism. But I can speak from experience as to how a term limited to notions of "Islamic fundamentalism" for the just protection of terrorist victims can fail us all.
So, as we approach the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I call for a more nuanced understanding and application of the term "terrorism." After all, as my father's case demonstrated, defining terrorism in terms of race or a racialized religion will do less to make us feel safe as a country, as such targeted terms are more likely to contribute to sowing seeds of Islamophobia rather then increase the scope of protection for victims of domestic terrorism. If "terrorism" were to be applied both socially and politically to anyone who inflicted terror on a person, people or populations, protection would be protection as opposed to racial profiling. As a nation, we are disabled, not enabled, when we reach for the stereotype band-aids to heal our wounds. Ten years and a new administration later, it's about time that we the citizens and government officials work together, head to the lab and not the medicine cabinet, to invent new methods to heal a country's pain, because maybe it's something beyond a hotly contested word.
As I confessed earlier, I don't know what that term could possibly be, or if it even helps us to rely on a single term. But, what I can offer is this prescription: for us as a collective, and even as individuals, to conscientiously challenge these stock uses of "terrorism." My father's story does much to challenge the conventional understanding of "terrorism," as even Arabs can have terrorist attacks committed to them, and even by white Americans. But, I plea with you to ask yourself honestly: now, do your understandings of "terrorism" reflect such a challenge?