POLITICS
12/16/2015 10:43 am ET

Cops Ask Armed Citizens To Fight Terrorists. What Could Go Wrong?

"Fear and apprehension in the American Muslim community is even higher now than it was after 9/11."

A number of local sheriffs across the nation are calling on their citizens to take the fight against terror into their own hands as the world continues to try to make sense of recent terror attacks in Paris and California. 

In states like New York, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, law enforcement officials have urged people to legally take up arms and remain vigilant. But as an increasingly explicit strain of Islamophobia sweeps across the nation, some Muslims say they're worried that this sort of rhetoric will end up fueling fear and suspicion of people like them.

"In a time of increasing hate crimes, it is troubling to hear law enforcement suggest that people arm themselves to protect themselves from their fellow Americans," Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney for the program to counter anti-Muslim hate at Muslim Advocates, told The Huffington Post.

Ahussain said these kinds of comments are “part of a disturbing trend” by some public officials who are creating a dangerous environment for American Muslims and even perhaps giving tacit approval to attack members of their community.

In Carter County, Oklahoma, a largely white district with a population of about 50,000, Sheriff Milton Antony recently warned residents that "radical Islam is bringing the fight to our homeland and killing innocent citizens." Antony said in a letter posted to Facebook that while he doesn’t "want to scare anyone," the times are changing and the "world is becoming more violent toward Americans."

He also told people in the area to prepare for a possible battle.

"It may come a time that you as citizens may be called upon to help defend the citizens of this county against all enemies foreign and domestic that want to do us harm or kill us," Antony wrote.

Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum of Ulster County, New York, used similar urgent rhetoric earlier this month, when he called on citizens who are licensed to carry a firearm to "PLEASE DO SO." 

Within two weeks of going online, a Facebook post with his message was shared over 30,000 times and "liked" just about as many.

 

"It may come a time that you as citizens may be called upon to help defend the citizens of this county against all enemies foreign and domestic that want to do us harm or kill us." Carter County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Milton Antony

Police Chief Randy Kennedy in Hughes Springs, Texas, posted a video message to Facebook earlier this month in which he said authorities couldn’t be expected to "be everywhere, all the time" and called for "law-abiding citizens" to arm themselves.

"We need to send a message to the criminal element as well to these terrorists and these jihadi who want to murder in the name of their god, and the criminal element that wants to go out, you know, and just totally destroy our way of life," Kennedy said.

Several other sheriffs, overwhelmingly from rural, majority-white areas seemingly unlikely to be the targets of large-scale terror plots, have taken to social media to express similar sentiments hinged on the fear of a possible impending threat from "terrorists" or "radical Islamic extremists."

Their comments come a time when Muslim Americans across the nation, young and old, are already feeling the hate. In the weeks following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, there have been near-daily reports of violence and intimidation directed at Muslims in North America. Just last week, a mosque in southern California was "intentionally" set on fire and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. That same week in Florida, a woman in a hijab was shot at and nearly run off the road after leaving her mosque; in another part of the state, a man allegedly threw rocks and other objects at different woman wearing a hijab.

In Alabama, several cities have found fliers that were allegedly left by a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and that call for citizens to "help us fight the spread of Islam in our country." And last month, about 20 members of the anti-Muslim Bureau of American-Islamic Relations held a heavily armed protest outside of a mosque in Irving, Texas, claiming -- based on no factual evidence -- that the mosque funds terrorism.

During such tense times, American Muslim communities should be able to rely on their local law enforcement officials to look out for their safety. Instead, however, some of these authorities are making statements that some say could further inflame tensions and even incite violence against Muslims in the U.S..

"We are very concerned over the strong and offensive rhetoric coming from some politicians and some media outlets because these inflammatory words has real-life consequences on the ground for us," said Khalid Hamideh, attorney and spokesman for the Islamic Association of North Texas, the Irving mosque where armed protesters demonstrated.

Hamideh said that "due to the hate spreading nationally," Muslim communities in northern Texas have also received bomb threats, death threats and discrimination against women.

While the threat of terrorism looms large for many Americans, the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a perpetrator espousing any political ideology, whether overseas or at home, is extraordinarily low. The average American is more likely to be crushed to death by a television or other piece of furniture than to be killed by a terrorist.

But these calls to arms by local sheriffs are, of course, not rooted in data. And while they may be well-intended responses to fears from residents, Muslim leaders maintain they could incite a dangerous backlash, especially in smaller rural communities, where minorities -- and particularly those who follow Islam -- often face increased scrutiny and prejudice.

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost that Islamophobia is at some of the highest levels ever experienced in the nation.

"Fear and apprehension in the American Muslim community is even higher now than it was after 9/11," he said.

He explained that while there were some examples of hate crimes and bigoted backlash against Muslims in the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11, it was relegated to the fringes of society.

"Now," Hooper said, "it’s squarely in the center, in the mainstream."

In large part, Hooper said, that's due to the hateful rhetoric being spouted off by Republican presidential hopefuls like billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump -- who has called for a "complete shutdown" on Muslims entering the U.S. -- and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has also made a series of bizarre and disturbing anti-Muslim comments.

Hooper also chastised faith leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, who recently called on members of the evangelical college's student body to apply for concealed-carry weapon permits. If more people did this, Falwell said, "we could end those Muslims." The audience applauded at this remark.

Still, some members of law enforcement aren’t just calling for more arms -- they’re also training citizens tactically. In Georgia’s Cherokee County, the local sheriff and multiple police chiefs are getting ready to offer free "anti-terrorism" classes to teach armed citizens how to respond to a possible attack.

The National Sheriffs Association has not taken a position on these local sheriffs’ approaches, said Jonathan Thompson, the organization's executive director.

"Every sheriff is responsible to their local electorate," Thompson said. "Each takes actions to suit their communities’ needs."

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