ON March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman, was fatally beaten with a tire iron in Southern California. A note found near her said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The investigators asserted that it was an isolated incident and that other Iraqis need not worry. Lumping disparate peoples into threats and describing violence against them as “isolated incidents” works in tandem. The former justifies sustained violence and the latter diverts our attention from the systemic nature of this violence. What we see instead are exceptional events — “isolated incidents” of violence suspended outside the broader societal context and exigencies of the national security state. We don’t see them as the latest in a long chain of violence on a particular group of people or an episode in the nation’s deep history of violence and dispossession.
Alia Malek’s work of oral history, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, gives the lie to the frame — isolated incident — that holds within it the image of the idyllic American society as it effaces its systematic injustices.
By including the violated as victims of isolated crimes, this frame excludes the chorus of their voices. It shuts out the stories of unrelenting violence: of racial terrors such as beatings and violent deaths; of legal terrors such as incarcerations, detentions, and deportations; of routine, everyday violence such as bullying at school, employment discrimination, travelling made arduous, racist jibes and sneers. In Malek’s words, “the personal stories and lived experiences of these realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In Patriot Acts that chorus pushes at the constricting margins of the frame and enables us to see the lives damaged and the families shattered by America’s domestic war on terror.
Walking back home with an Indian co-worker on the day of 9/11, Malek noticed that it wasn’t her but her non-Muslim, non-Arab, Indian friend who was getting nasty stares and sneers. “Ironically,” Malek writes, “I, as a fair-skinned Arab, look the part much less, given how Arabs and Muslims are visualised in the American imagination.” This is a fundamental insight. Racism, tied intimately to nationalism and empire, doesn’t make studied and careful distinctions. Its essential distinctions are centered on itself: they are not us. The construction of enemies, of majorities and minorities, is the constitutive violence of the nation. It labels and targets particular kinds of ‘Others’ at a given historic juncture, and especially those perceived to be cosmopolitan, people of suspect loyalties with links with the enemy without. Minorities are the foil against which the unity of the nation is constituted and injustices obscured. That foil for present day America is the racialised figure of the terrorist, the Muslim: Dark skinned, bearded and beturbaned, or behijabed, looking Middle Eastern, and/or having Middle Eastern sounding name. And the violence arrayed against it targets immigrants in general.
In Patriot Acts, Rana Sodhi describes how he and his brothers fled the anti-Sikh violence and prejudice in India in the 1980’s and came to the US “for freedom, a safer place, and a better life.” The post 9/11 backlash turned that American dream into a nightmare. Rana says that “Every time there’s a new event — the Iraq war, the London bombings, the Madrid bombings, […] — there is a resurgence of racism, and Sikhs are often the first target.” A couple of days after 9/11, a friend of Rana called him, and expressing concern at the rising attacks against Sikhs, said that “they are showing bin Laden’s picture on the TV, and he looks like a Sardar.” Tragedy struck on September 15, 2001, when Rana’s brother, Balbir Sodhi, was gunned down in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. That was the first reported post 9/11 hate-murder. (Almost a year later, another of his brothers, a taxi driver, was shot dead in San Francisco. It was not deemed a hate crime, but Rana disagrees.)
Such episodes of direct violence are merely the tip of the iceberg of everyday violence, what historian Gyannendra Pandey calls “routine violence.” It is violence normalised and thus hardly noticed (except by those subjected to it). But it is there in administrative practices of “random profiling” at airports, and in police surveillance of ethnic neighborhoods, in the distortions in history books, in media biases and cinematic representations, in sneers and taunts, and in the dehumanising assumptions held and opinions expressed by common folk in bars, coffee shops and workplaces. Malek cites the Sikh Coalition’s survey, conducted in 2006, involving 439 Sikh students under 18 years of age in New York City. A whopping half of them reported being bullied and “for every three out of five students who wear a turban, harassment occurs daily.”