Monday, June 26, 2006

Sensationalizing Miami terror arrests hurts us all

By Pamela K. Taylor

News of arrests in Miami of seven men who are alleged to have been plotting to blow up the Sears Building in Chicago raises a lot of questions.

First, the men are being called radical Muslims, but at least one of their members says they are part of a religious sect called "Seas of David."

Little is known about this group, but in response to questioning by CNN, one of the men replied, "we study and we train through the Bible, not only physical, but mentally." Group members say they worship in a "temple," not in an Islamic mosque. They also seem to have had no connection to other radical Muslim groups -- not Al-Qaeda, who they were trying to contact; nor were they connected to the group arrested recently in Toronto.

As a Muslim, I have grave concerns over the increasing perception of polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims. I honestly believe we have far more in common than is often perceived.

Human beings all want basically the same things, a decent living, a safe home, family and friends, a dignified life free from poverty and oppression; and all religions teach the same basic values -- peace, harmony, charity, compassion for others, especially the needy, love for other humans, responsibility in our dealings with the world, etc.

The perception that "Islam" stands on one side of a divide with "The West" or "Judeo-Chrisitan civilization" on the other is horribly damaging. We live on one small planet, and there is little likelihood of our being able to colonize other worlds in even the medium range future. We simply have to learn to live together.

One-point-six billion Muslims aren't going to suddenly disappear, convert en masse to Christianity or become Westernized overnight, just as a similar number of Christians aren't going to disappear, convert to Islam, or develop new sensibilities.

It is insanity to sensationalize current affairs in such a way as to provoke a greater divide than actually exists. It is madness to relate to all Muslims as though they agree with Osama Bin Laden, or are represented by him, just as it would be madness to assume that all Christians agree with Timothy McVeigh or the IRA.

Because Muslims are often foriegn, often brown-skinned, often speaking different languages, eating different foods and living with different customs, it is easy to stereotype, to lump us all into a single group. But that is as fallacious as it would be to lump all Christians into a single group, and far more dangerous.

A war between Islam and the West would not be pretty. A never-ending war on terror would forever alter the face of American democracy. It would erode civil liberties and rights that we hold dear. It would create a president who acts like a dictator rather than a public official working within a system that balances his power with Congressional and Judicial checks.

While the coverage I have seen of the arrests does not make a great deal over the race of the suspects, it is significant that they are African Americans. Clearly, there have been radical/violent black groups in the past.

By and large, however, the African American Muslim community has steered clear of radicalism and violence. They tend to focus on personal and spiritual development as the first step to social improvement with a commitment to promoting black business, individual social, emotional and fiscal responsibility.

If the group arrested in Miami really is associated with African American Islam, it represents a major departure from the past. From what I've seen, those arrested are, at best, a fringe group that has extremely loose ties with Islam, if any. As such, it doesn't represent African American Islam in any way.

That does not mean, however, that the African American Muslim community may not be smeared by guilt by association. African American Muslims have largely been exempted from the scathing attacks on Islam. They have not been smeared with the charge that they cannot be Muslim and still be loyal to America, since the vast majority of them have roots in this country that go back centuries.

However, this case could throw doubt, in some people's minds, on that loyalty. That would be a terrible development 1) because it doesn't reflect reality, and 2) because it would feed into the us/them rhetoric.

Finally, it's important for us to remember that the men were charged on conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. According to CNN, no weapons were found, no bomb-making equipment was discovered in their Miami warehouse. Even their plans appear to have been hazy. There was no mention of pages of detailed strategy, or anything like that.

I keep thinking of the Phillip Dick story (and later Tom Cruise movie) Minority Report.

At what point, does preventative arrest become arresting an innocent person who just likes to bluster a lot. At what point does preventative arrest unfairly hurt a group of people who do nothing more than sit around inventing fairy tales, but never do anything?

How do you decide which group will actually start to implement their plans, and which group is just spouting hot air?

According to reports from the Canadian press, the other recent terrorist arrest in Toronto captured a group that seemed to have gone much farther than the men in Miami.

In Toronto, the arrested men tried to buy explosives from a Canadian Security Services operative. In fact, it appears a dummy load of fertilizer was actually delivered to them. It seems pretty clear they were taking the steps needed to put their plans into action.

The men in Miami also went so far as to try to contact someone they thought was from Al Qaeda. (Again details are hazy: Did they try to make contact or did the undercover agent contact them, and they were willing to meet with him?).

In the Miami arrests, the absence of concrete plans and the materials needed to carry out their supposed attack makes the case seem a lot more shaky.

While protecting the country from further attacks is essential, so too is the right of all of us to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. As preventative arrests continue to be made, it is important to hold tight to the Bill of Rights and the legal standards which protect all citizens from over-zealous law enforcement.

[Note: I posted this for Pamela because a Blogger glitch wouldn't let her original post publish. - Diane]

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