This is an excerpt from a guest column in Daily Kos, originally published on May 18, 2020.
Sometimes leaders overreach. They do not intend to put people or groups in danger, but their language has that effect. Trump seems not to care when this happens. But many leaders do. And all leaders should.
Often journalists, civic leaders, and commentators raise concerns when such language goes too far. Responsible leaders take those concerns seriously. Sometimes they do so right away. Sometimes they live in a state of denial, continuing to use such language, until some event forces them to snap out of denial and to take the concerns seriously.
Very often, once made aware, responsible leaders work to neutralize whatever damage they may have done, and to correct the impression their followers may have had about the leader’s intention. Most important, they stop using such language.
Consider President George W. Bush.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon. A fourth was apparently heading for the White House, but passengers prevented the flight from reaching its target. It crashed instead into a field in Pennsylvania. This was the largest assault against the United States since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. And like Pearl Harbor it put the US on a war footing. But not against a nation state. Unlike a nation, with a standing government and uniformed military, the amorphous nature of this enemy made defining the fight difficult.
As the nation’s national security apparatus struggled initially to define what was happening, President George W. Bush was flown from Florida, where he was at a public event at the time of the attack, to a safe location in the middle of the country.
That night, back in the White House, he addressed the nation,
“Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
After offering comfort and contrasting the terrorists’ character with those of the first responders, Bush committed to find the plotters and bring them to justice,
“The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
The nation was scared, and the President was acting in his role both as commander-in-chief and comforter-in-chief.
People Perceived to be Muslim or Arab At Risk
But in the days after the attack some people in the United States who were perceived to be Muslim or Arab found themselves being menaced in ways that ranged from insults to death threats.
Two days following the attack President Bush tried to tamp down citizens’ desire to blame all Muslims and Arabs for the attack. In an Oval Office phone call with New York State Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, broadcast live on TV, President Bush said,
“I know I don’t need to tell you all this, but our nation must be mindful that there are thousands of Arab-Americans who live in New York City who love their flag just as much as the three of us do. And we must be mindful that as we seek to win the war that we treat Arab-Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve. I know that is your attitudes, as well; it’s certainly the attitude of this Government, that we should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror. We will hold those who are responsible for the terrorist acts accountable and those who harbor them.”
Many saw this as a positive development, including members of at-risk communities. But two days later a Sikh man, who had received several death threats since the attack, was murdered. NPR reported,
“On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was outside of the Chevron gas station he owned in Mesa, Ariz., when he was shot and killed. Balbir was Sikh and wore a turban. In one of the first hate crime murders following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a man, assuming Balbir was Muslim, shot and killed him as retaliation. Balbir and his brothers…emigrated from India in the 1980s, and they owned the Chevron together.”
The shooter was forty-eight-year-old Frank Roque, who shot Sodhi from the window of his moving pickup truck. He didn’t stop, but continued driving, opening fire on a Lebanese-American who was wounded but not killed. He also shot at the home of a family of Afghan descent. He then entered a local bar and said loudly,
“They’re investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported,
“Arrested later that afternoon at his home, Roque allegedly told officers he was seeking to revenge the terrorist assaults. ‘I stand for America all the way,’ he bellowed, complaining that he was being taken in while ‘those terrorists run wild.’”
Of course, Bodhi, the shooting victim, was not a terrorist. Nor was he a Muslim. But he wore a turban, as did Osama bin Laden, and some Americans could not differentiate among different religions or ethnicities.
On the day following Bodhi’s shooting CNN reported that hate crimes against Muslims and South Asians had risen exponentially in the days following the 9/11 attack.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations received more than three hundred reports of harassment and abuse in the forty-eight hours after the attack, nearly half the number it received the entire year prior. It also noted that Sikhs were a particular target. A New York man was shot in the head with a BB gun as he left worship in a Sikh temple in Queens. A Virginia man was almost driven off the road by two vans while he drove to a site to give blood. The official US Sikh website reported more than three hundred incidents of hate crimes and harassment in the month following 9/11.