Racial profiling threatens to widen the conflict for which Bush and Blair are preparing.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th March 2002
Those of us who opposed the bombing of Afghanistan warned that the war between nations would not stop there. Now, as Tony Blair prepares the British people for an attack on Iraq, the conflict seems to be proliferating faster than most of us predicted. But there is another danger, which we have tended to neglect: that of escalating hostilities WITHIN the nations waging this war. The racial profiling which has become the unacknowledged focus of America’s new security policy is in danger of provoking the very clash of cultures its authors appear to perceive.
Yesterday’s Guardian told the story of Adeel Akhtar, a British Asian man who flew to the United States for an acting audition. When his plane arrived at JFK airport in New York, he and his female friend were handcuffed. He was taken to a room and questioned for several hours. The officials asked him whether he had friends in the Middle East, or knew anyone who approved of the attacks on September 11. His story will be familiar to hundreds of people of Asian or Middle Eastern origin.
I have just obtained a copy of a letter sent last week by a 50 year-old British Asian woman (who doesn’t want to be named) to the US Immigration Service. At the end of January, she flew to JFK to visit her sister, who is suffering from cancer. At the airport, immigration officials found that on a previous visit she had overstayed her visa. She explained that she had been helping her sister, who was very ill, and had applied for an extension. When the officers told her she would have to return to Britain, she accepted their decision but asked to speak to the British consul.
They refused her request, but told her she could ring the Pakistani consulate if she wished. She explained that she was British, not Pakistani, as her passport showed. The guards then started to interrogate her. How many languages did she speak? How long had she lived in Britain? They smashed the locks on her suitcases and took her fingerprints. Then she was handcuffed and chained and marched through the departure lounge. “I felt like the guards were parading me in front of the passengers like their prize-catch. Why was I put in handcuffs? I am a fifty-year old housewife from the suburbs of London. What threat did I pose to the safety of the other passengers?”
Last week, a correspondent for the Times found 30 men and one woman camped in a squalid hotel in Mogadishu, in Somalia. They were all African Americans of Somali origin, who had arrived in the United States as babies or children. Most were professionals with secure jobs and stable lives. In January, just after the release of Black Hawk Down (the film about the failed US military mission in Somalia), they were rounded up. They were beaten, threatened with injections and refused phone calls and access to lawyers. Then, a fortnight ago, with no charges made or reasons given, they were summarily deported to Somalia. Now, without passports, papers or money, in an alien and frightening country, they are wondering whether they will ever see their homes again.
All these people are victims of a new kind of racial profiling which the United States government applies but denies. The US attorney-general has called for some 5000 men of Arab origin to be questioned by federal investigators. Since September 11, over 1000 people who were born in the Middle East have been detained indefinitely for “immigration infractions”. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has recorded hundreds of recent instances of alleged official discrimination in the US. Muslim women have been strip-searched at airports, men have been dragged out of bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night. It reports that evidence which remains shielded from the suspect, of the kind permitted by the recent US Patriot Act, “has been used almost exclusively against Muslims and Arabs in America”. Brown-skinned people in the US are now terrorist suspects. Some officials appear to regard them as guilty until proven otherwise.
Similar policies appear to govern the judicial treatment of detainees. During his press conference on 28 December, President Bush initially misunderestimated a question, and provided a revealing answer. “Have you decided,” he was asked, “that anybody should be subjected to a military tribunal?” Bush replied, “I excluded any Americans.” The questioner pointed out that he meant to ask whether Bush had made any decisions about the captives in Guantanamo Bay. But what the president had revealed was that the differential treatment of those foreign fighters and John Walker Lindh, the “American Talib” currently being tried in a federal court in Virginia, is not an accident of process, but policy. He couldn’t treat a white American like the captives in Camp X-ray and expect to get away with it.
These attitudes pre-date the attack on New York. “Patterns of Global Terrorism”, a document published by the US counterterrorism coordinator in April, appears to define international terror as violence directed at US citizens, US commercial interests or white citizens of other nations. Black and brown-skinned people are the perpetrators of terror, but not its victims. In Angola, for example, the “most significant incident” in the year 2000 was the kidnapping of three Portuguese construction workers by rebels. The murder of hundreds of Angolan civilians is unrecorded. In Sierra Leone terrorism, the report suggests, has afflicted only foreign journalists, aid workers and peacekeepers. In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army’s appears to have done nothing but kidnap and murder Italian missionaires. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where terror sponsored by six African states has led to the deaths of some three million people, isn’t mentioned. Yet domestic terrorism in the United Kingdom and Spain is covered at length.
There is, of course, vicious racism on other sides as well. Bin Laden threatened a holy war against Jews. The men who kidnapped the journalist Daniel Pearl forced him to announce that he was a Jew before cutting his throat. I have lost count of the number of emails I’ve received from opponents of the Afghan war in Pakistan and the Middle East, claiming that 4000 Jews were evacuated from the World Trade Centre before the attacks.
This makes security policies based on racial discrimination even more dangerous. By treating brown-skinned people as if they are the natural enemies of the United States, the government could generate conflict where there was none before. At the same time this policy establishes splendid opportunities for terrorists with white skins, as they become, to the eyes of officials, all but invisible.
This is the morass into which Tony Blair is now stepping. “These are not people like us,” he said of the Iraqi leadership on Sunday. “They are not people who abide by the normal rules of human behaviour.” Some would argue that this quality establishes their kinship with British ministers. But to persuade us that we should go to war with Iraq, Blair must first make its leaders appear as remote from ourselves as possible.
The attack on Iraq, when it comes, could be the beginning of a third world war. It may, as hints dropped by the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggest, turn out to be the first phase of a war involving many nations. It may also become a war against the third world, and its diaspora in the nations of the first.