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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Targeting the real enemy, not the imagined one

September 18, 2001

The search was on for enemies within even before search and destroy missions begin against the enemies of America who perpetrated last week's atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania (and California, planned destination of all the airliners involved).

At the moment the murderous hijackers boarded their planes in Boston, Newark and Dulles, Va., the FBI knew who some were and was searching for them. That was a valid search, as is the ongoing effort to find remaining "sleeper" terrorists in America. Just as valid will be the searches conducted by military pilots who will surely seek out and wipe out nests of terrorists in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.

It will be a tricky operation. Just as tricky will be the task of the people of California, this largest and most polyglot of all American's states, for it's as easy to hate and fear Muslims now as it was to hate and fear Japanese ethnics in 1941.

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But just as there should never again be another Pearl Harbor or another World Trade Center massacre, so also there should be no more Manzanars.

The likelihood is small for an official, literal new Manzanar, a camp where Moslem immigrants might suffer the same dentention and other losses of freedom inflicted on Japanese-Americans during World War II.

But the making of de facto Manzanars in neighborhoods all over California may already be under way. Many Islamic immigrants — from places as diverse and far apart as Indonesia and Morocco, Egypt and Kurdistan — are already hesitant to leave their homes, even to venture into the neighborhoods many have called home for decades.

Days after the terror attacks of last week, a small woman of at least 65 wore a black-and-white babushka as she carried a small bag of fruit in a farmer's market in Santa Monica. That scarf, wrapped over her head and knotted beneath her chin, served to set her apart every bit as effectively as the six-pointed yellow stars Jews had to wear in Hitler's Europe before the Nazis got around to building extermination camps.

"Are you sure you don't have a bomb under your dress?" asked one passer-by.

"Why don't you go home?" demanded another.

This anonymous lady the enemy? Wrapped in shawl, long skirt and long-sleeved sweater in 80-degree weather, it is not likely.

It was the same the night before in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. There, a man on a motorcycle shouted ethnic slurs at a group of Middle Easterners standing outside a supermarket, then roared away on his motorcycle.

It was similar when racist words were spray painted on the wall of an Islamic center in the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco. And when a convenience store owned by a Syrian immigrant in the Antelope Valley town of Quartz Hill twice had its windows shot out last week, even though the owner is a Christian Arab, not a Moslem at all. There's even danger of stereotyping in Afghanistan itself, when troops and warplanes eventually go there to seek out terrorists, as they surely will. They will be aiming to destroy arch-terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and the militant clerics who run the Taliban regime that has harbored him and terrorized most Afghans for almost 10 years.

"Bomb the hell out of them," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. "If there's collateral damage, so be it. They didn't care about our collateral damage."

But innocents killed as collateral damage there would be every bit as innocent as workers in the World Trade Center.

Says Tamim Ansary, an Afghan émigré who has lived in America 35 years, "When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler.

"And when you think ‘the people of Afghanistan,' think ‘the Jews in the concentration camps.' The people of Afghanistan were the first victims. They would exult if someone came in there and took out the Taliban and clear out the rat's nest of international thugs holed up in their country."

So caring about collateral damage, whether in Afghanistan or in the psyche of California's neighborhoods, is what America is all about. Stop caring about collateral damage, about killing or discriminating against complete innocents, and we're in the same league as the hijacker pilots who hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We're no longer America, but someplace different.

That's why it's so important for Californians to make sure we have no Manzanars this time, literal or figurative.

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