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Sound of Silence: UCSC student Mira Speare reads message posted at the Town Clock about the tragic events in New York.

The Week After

A community comes to grips with the implications of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

By Sarah Phelan

IN THE FIRST WAVE of reaction to the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, many commentators compared the unfolding tragedy to Pearl Harbor. But was it an accurate analogy? Local author Jim Houston, whose wife, Jeannie Wakatsuki Houston, spent three years in a Japanese-American internment camp in the wake of the 1941 attack, says that in some ways the Sept. 11 attack was similar--and in many ways not.

"Yes, it was an unanticipated assault on America, but with a big difference. Pearl Harbor was a military attack on a naval installation, a very public declaration of war, whereas this attack was on civilians by a nonmilitary and unidentified advocacy," says Houston, who worries that invoking unqualified analogies with the 1941 attack could lead to a racist backlash, this time against people of Arab ancestry.

"Immediately after Pearl Harbor came the assumption that anyone of Japanese ancestry had a hand in the attack," Houston recalls. "One hundred ten thousand people of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and evacuated. And today, before we even have confirmed who did this, anyone associated with Arab ancestry and Islam is suspect."

Houston says that though he wants government to take swift and appropriate measures, he worries about the public's impulse to point fingers at others.

"America has perpetuated terrible crimes against the Middle East, Asia and Latin America," Houston says. "An embargo we initiated nine years ago has led to Iraq's water supply being contaminated and thousands of its children dying of dysentery, diarrhea and pollution."

With Congress voting almost unanimously to give the president sweeping powers to use military force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Houston warns against knee-jerk reactions. Pointing out that a core group of 25 or so people appear to have orchestrated a very sophisticated plan, with maybe 50 to 100 people supporting them, Houston asks, "So how do you go bomb them, which is what the Pentagon seems to want to do?"

To date, no nation has declared war on the United States or accepted responsibility for last Tuesday's heinous attack. Instead, evidence suggests the operation was godfathered by Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden, a 44-year-old businessman who helped the CIA fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, but developed an intense hatred of the United States during the Gulf War.

Today, bin Laden is believed to be headquartered in Afghanistan, a mountainous version of Vietnam inasmuch as Afghanistan was bombed by the Russians, who lost tens of thousands of ground troops in guerrilla style warfare before retreating, leaving the country effectively hijacked by the Taliban, a group of militant Islamic fundamentalists, who have instituted a reign of terror on the Afghani populace, especially its women.

As Houston points out, "If we bomb Afghanistan in retaliation, we are as guilty as Tuesday's culprits. Surely, we don't want to go around frivolously killing citizens, since that's precisely what is outraging us about the Sept. 11 attacks."

With the United States still reeling from the shock of having been horribly violated on its own soil, Houston thinks that our feelings of vulnerability are similar to those experienced in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, even though that attack occurred 2,400 miles away.

Houston recalls, "Throughout the '30s, the United States had moved huge pieces of the fleet there, so we were militarily and psychologically prepared for something to happen, but it was still a shock. No one believed we were vulnerable."

Today, says Houston, the real terror for Americans, besides feeling vulnerable, is that we don't have a readily identifiable enemy.

"Defense systems, nuclear missiles, shields are all totally insufficient to defend against what happened. We have the most expensive military arrangements ever created in the world, yet no one knew it was coming," Houston says.

Even more sobering is the realization that a small group of people spent six months to a year orchestrating an attack in which they were all willing to die. "It's hard for us comprehend that, as well as the fact that they took our own planes and turned them into weapons. It's the Tai Chi of terrorism," Houston says.

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Flag Flying

WITH AMERICAN FLAGS being snapped up as fast as they hit the stores, Geoffrey Dunn, executive director of Community TV, muses on how patriotism has two faces--a loving one and an angry one.

"Loving is the kind we feel when we see footage of New Yorkers helping each other and the tremendous outpouring of compassion for those hurt and killed," Dunn says. "Angry is the jingoistic 'Let's nuke em!' kind, and while anger is a legitimate reaction, we need to be guided by the better nature of our angels at this time."

Dunn said he felt a particular bond with the people going through the rubble in New York, because it reminded him of the Loma Prieta earthquake aftermath.

"I saw the same grief, fear, commitment, strength and fortitude," Dunn says.

Dunn believes that to heal we as a nation have to explore why the terrorists were so angry with us. "That they were prepared to sacrifice their lives and those of innocent bystanders in this manner makes us recognize that a large number of people throughout the world hate our country and Americans," says Dunn, adding that if evidence points conclusively to Osama bin Laden, "we can agree it's an act of war, since the current Afghani rulers have harbored and protected him. But if we respond militarily by bombing Afghanistan, we will only engender more hatred and violence."

In Dunn's mind, President Bush's response to the attack could be his ticket out of the White House.

"Whoever did this, chose to do so during Bush's presidency," notes Dunn. "People sense internationally that Bush is weak, immature and doesn't possess the popular support that Clinton did, even through his personal travails. And it's a myth that military buildup is good for the economy. During Vietnam and the Cold War, the military buildup had a devastating impact on the economy, which caught up with us in the late '70s and early '80s."

Dunn also warns of ensuing onslaughts on civil liberties and a racial backlash as the country talks of going to war. "We may like to pretend racism doesn't exist, but talk to people of color, and they felt it immediately after the attack."

Bridge to Peace

JEANNIE WAKATSUKI, who spent three years inside the Japanese internment camp known as Manzanar, believes that whereas the government and press actively fueled anti-Japanese sentiment post Pearl Harbor, today's media has reacted more responsibly.

"In 1941, not one columnist defended the Japanese, whereas today we have heard commentators saying, 'Do not mistake all Arabs for terrorists.' And some people are reflecting intelligently on these issues via the Internet," Wakatsuki notes. She believes the outpouring of compassion and prayers shows a spiritual yearning to be connected to fellow humanity.

"People are trying to build a bridge to peace, by taking the higher ground, and educating ourselves more about the world and the Afghanis."

Disappointed, however, by the San Francisco Examiner headlines that screamed "Bastards!" and suggestions that the attack was the result of people being threatened by American values, Wakatsuki insists that "this is about a hatred of inequity in the world, not hatred of freedom in general."

Wakatsuki sees the wish for vengeance as a fear-driven reaction but believes that because attitudes have changed since Pearl Harbor, we still have a chance for peace. "People want peace. And we can change more. So let's send in massive amounts of food, water, medicine and infrastructure, and liberate the people of Afghanistan, not toss bombs at these people."

Bay Area resident Najla Farzana knows all about racial backlash. Since Sept. 11, she and other Afghan-Americans have been targeted by hate emails that threaten her people and the nation of Afghanistan with "Hiroshima," as well as "Death to Islam."

"I will spit on your people as I pass them by in New York City. I will go out of my way to kill every man and woman that is even part of your people. You must be put to death. You must be treated like the savages you are," wrote one hate-mailer, while another urged, "Death to all rag heads." "You fucks are gonna see your country turned into a toilet if you don't give up Osama bin Laden," warned a third.

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, which is home to 60,000 Afghan-Americans, there have been reports of broken windows and other acts of vandalism.

This isn't the first time that Farzana and her family, who left Afghan in 1980, have been targeted.

"During the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when we were living in Oregon, people would ring our doorbell in the middle of night. When we opened it we found a box of dead rats on our doorstep," says Farzana, who was 14 years old at the time.

"At school, kids threw things and left death threats on my desk. And I wasn't even from Iran," she recalls, adding that during the Gulf War and a few days after the Oklahoma bombing, anti-Arab sentiments were palpable.

For Farzana, the Sept. 11 attack brought back terrible memories of Afghanistan before her family left. "Watching TV, I felt as if I were suddenly back in Kabul with all the building crumpling around me under the Russian invasion."

In that sense, the current tragedy is doubly difficult for Afghan-Americans. Farzana explains, "Not only are we witnessing this horror, but we know that 2 million Afghanis lost their lives over the past 20 years to help make America a superpower, only to have our country left in the hands of terrorists. And now we are being vilified. Americans have to remember that the Afghani people do not recognize the Taliban, which is run by a bunch of terrorists."

A single mom with three children, Farzana says she'd already be dead if she were in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

"I have no man with me, so I wouldn't be able to work, so we'd starve," Farzana says. "And my two girls wouldn't be able to attend school, unless they went to underground schools, for which we'd be punished or killed if they were caught. Women under the Taliban's rule can't leave the house without a male companion."

With reports that Iran is sealing its borders as Afghanis try to flee, Farzana says that many more Afghanis may not even know what's happening since they have no access to radio, TV or newspapers. As for the country being bombed in retaliation, Farzana says, "Most Afghanis are so weak, hungry and cold, that if they die tomorrow, they probably wouldn't care. Afghanis have always been freedom fighters, and if they have to give their lives, they would gladly do it to restore peace and freedom in Afghanistan."

Farzana says her biggest fear is that even if the United States does go to war, it won't be able to catch and punish the masterminds. "Since Pakistan supports the Taliban, I fear it won't be able to fulfill its promises of helping the United States. And how will the Taliban ever give up bin Laden, if he's found guilty, since he created, supported and trained them?" she asks, adding that, in her mind, "both bin Laden and the Taliban have to be eliminated, because they are both the same thing: terrorists."

Faced with hate emails from her fellow Americans, Farzana says she understand why people are so angry. "My heart goes out to the victims and families, and I'm crying and crying as I watch the rescue teams. But I want people to know that Afghanis and Afghan-Americans are in the same boat as all Americans, except that we've been terrorized for the past 20 years."

Farzana hopes that out of all this will come better understanding and knowledge of people overseas. "A lot of people in this country are so involved in their own life, they don't see what's going on in the rest of the world. Osama bin Laden was on the CIA's payroll, as was Saddam Hussein. When you create a monster, and then turn your back, that monster will strike back."

Afghan-American Nasir Mohammad worries about talk of "bombing the hell out of Afghanistan." A Monterey resident for 22 years, Mohammad emphasizes that Afghanis didn't commit the atrocities. "Of the 19 suspects so far listed, not one of them was Afghani," says Mohammad, adding that "in Afghanistan, 20,000 Arabs have taken 20 million Afghanis hostage. Without them, the Taliban, which is the most fascist organization in the whole world, would fall."

Mohammad says he felt like he was watching a really bad movie as, crying, he watched TV on Sept 11.

"It's time to go get those guys, but you can't just carpet-bomb Afghanistan, which has experienced 20 years of war," Mohammad says." It was a beautiful country. Poor, yes, but not fanatic. No one was forced to go to the mosque, grow a beard, or stay inside the home."

Like Farzana, Mohammad is skeptical of Pakistan's pledge of support. "Thirty percent of the Pakistani army is involved with the Taliban, so no one in Pakistan can deliver on these promises, since the Taliban is connected with Pakistani Secret Intelligence," says Mohammad. "So no one can stand up to those guys, who tell people they will go to heaven if they blow something up."

Moderated Reaction

HERE IN SANTA CRUZ, Muslims have not experienced any harassment so far, according to Islamic community member Jackie Ganiy. Born and raised in America, Ganiy doesn't look Muslim and she doesn't wear the traditional veil. However, her son and all other students with Muslim-sounding names were pulled out of Santa Cruz High School and warned that there might be some harassment--and if so to report it immediately.

Despite such proactive measures, Ganiy says she's still apprehensive. "It's as if the Ku Klux Klan committed an atrocity, and people blamed all Americans," she explains. "That situation creates a double tragedy for the Muslim community in America. In addition to mourning for the terrible suffering and loss of life, we face harassment. It's as if someone is cloaking the act in a Muslim flag, and we feel we should be apologizing, though we had no part in it."

Though there has been a lot of anger nationwide, Ganiy says she's been pleasantly surprised by the current reaction compared to the racial backlash that followed the Oklahoma bombing. Last Friday, Ganiy and her family attended the Islamic Center of Santa Cruz prayer session without incident as part of the nation's day of mourning.

"Any peace- and freedom-loving sane person is heartbroken and devastated and condemns Tuesday's attack," Ganiy says. "No one needs to take a big wide paintbrush and call the perpetrators Islamic extremists, when what they are is animals."

Global Message

THE EVENTS of last week appear to have momentarily trumped the anti-globalization discussion, with September demonstrations against the World Bank and the IMF canceled.

But activist Sharon Delgado believes that people need to address the world trade issue more than ever since it has helped fuel anti-American sentiment.

A United Methodist minister, Delgado agrees that right now it's time for the nation to pray. "But all of us need to have conversations in which we look at the shadow cast by our country and its policies, some of which have planted the seeds of frustration and rage," she says.

Besides immediate retaliation or passivity, Delgado believes there is a third way. "Develop national policies that build true security in a world of peace and justice, a sustainable environment, health care, global equity, so the gap between rich and poor, independent and helpless nations does not continue to grow and create social instability, resentment and rage."

Ruth Hunter, an 85-year-old activist, has focused her energies into organizing a community forum titled "Peaceful Responses to the Terrorist Attacks."

Says Hunter, "People need to come together, express their feelings, clear numbness and get perspectives."

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From the September 19-26, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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