Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1995, pg. 43
After Oklahoma City: Looking for Someone to Blame
By Hania Younis
My co-worker asks me, "You don't feel as badly as the rest of us, do you?" It is three hours after the Oklahoma City bombing. She asks me this question because I am an Arab American. We are both engineers for the federal government and work near Seattle.
"What do you mean? It's horrible!" I catch my breath as I realize we're talking about my loyalties and not the hundreds of lives lost and devastated. "But," I say, "if you mean do I feel more sadness than if this had happened somewhere else in the world, then no, I don't." She looks at me coldly, as though I have no sympathy.
I think about other recent tragedies: women in Bosnia begging not to be raped, whole villages of Guatemalans tortured one by one and killed as their families watched, Kurds pulling in lungfuls of poisonous air, and Iraqi families bombed in their homes. I think about my friend's adopted Palestinian son, found in the rubble of the building in which his entire family was killed.
"Besides," I say, "many people will assume that Arabs are responsible. And whether or not Arabs did this, it just reinforces the stereotype that Arabs are violent."
The television is on all day in our conference room. People drift in and out, watching for as long as they can. There's no evidence yet, but the newscasters still give two possibilities. The first is retaliation for the raid on the Branch Davidian compound. They also say there's been an anonymous phone call from someone claiming to be in Hamas. A man walks in and asks for an update and another immediately states, "Someone from Hamas claimed responsibility." His eagerness to blame this crime on Arabs saddens and frustrates me.
On television a distraught man asks, "Why Oklahoma City? We're good people here." I wonder what cities he thinks are filled with bad people, or what building anywhere in the world would be a more fitting target. All the interviews include statements like "not in America" and "these are innocent people." As though only we deserve to go unscathed by violence. Only we should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The news stations flash back to the World Trade Center and the barracks in Beirut. They want to make a connection early, just in case there is a connection.
When they mention Beirut someone says, "But these weren't soldiers." No, they weren't, I think. But would this be any less tragic if they were? And do we never kill anyone but soldiers? Are our "surgical strikes" so moral and precise that we never leave a scar, neither on others nor ourselves?
So many people still believe that Arabs are violent by nature.
That night my father calls at 11 p.m., 2 a.m. his time.
"We just wanted to hear your voice," he says.
"You were worried, weren't you?" I ask. "Dad, we haven't received any threats.
"I know. It's tragic. All those people. And the children just break my heart." My father is a doctor. He practiced medicine for 25 years in a small Midwestern town. I always knew when he was working with injured or dying children.
My father immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1962. With him I can grieve for the lives lost in Oklahoma City. I don't have to defend millions of Arabs or prove my grief is real and sufficient. But there is still more to discuss. "Did you hear?" I ask. "They're looking for three Middle-Eastern looking men."
"I know," he says. "What does a Middle-Easterner look like?"
I think about people guessing at my heritage. Spanish. Italian. Iranian. Mexican. Polish. Turkish. I think about Arabs who are very fair and very dark. Arabs with bright red hair and freckles.
The next day my co-worker asks why I look so tired. I tell her my father called around 11 o'clock because he was upset and wanted to talk about Oklahoma City. "Really?" she says, "that's good."
I repeat the word good in my mind. As though my father's grief is proof that Arabs care about life. Proof that Arabs don't think violence is acceptable and justified. But I am stronger today for having spoken to my father, so I let her words go.
"Well," she says, "I think we should find who did this and hold them responsible."
"I think we should retaliate," she says.
"How? Bomb someone?"
I ask how we retaliate against someone from Nebraska or France. I ask what she thinks people from less powerful countries do when a crime has been committed against them. How do they get their justice?
"So you think it's acceptable to bomb buildings?" she asks.
"Of course not," I say. "It's reprehensible. But violence is a part of the world we all live in. We need to ask why people resort to violence."
The radio on my desk is on. The newscaster cautions against jumping to conclusions about Arabs and says that Arab Americans are condemning this act of violence. My co-worker is surprised. "Wow," she says, "that's what you've been saying." I smile, but only a small smile. It is a bittersweet moment because so many people still believe that Arabs are violent by nature. It's all still there, waiting for an Arab to be connected to this bombing or the next. ❑
Hania Younis is an engineer, writer and literacy teacher living in Seattle, WA.