ALMOST AS SOON as the hideous news broke in Oklahoma City last week, an insistent media drumbeat began: Don't condemn Muslims. Don't scapegoat Arab-Americans. Don't assume this crime has a Middle Eastern connection.
As far as anyone knows, of course, this crime doesn't have a Middle Eastern connection. It appears the monster responsible for butchering and maiming hundreds of innocent souls is an all-American, home-grown monster, not one imported from abroad. The bigots and pinheads who couldn't wait to jump on the Internet or call a radio station to spew xenophobic slurs demonstrated once again that it is better to keep silent and let people think you're a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.
But since when do the media inveigh against jumping to conclusions? That grave concern for the reputation and welfare of a religion -- what a rarity that was! As for scapegoating -- wasn't it just a few months ago that my media sisters and brothers were explaining why the entire prolife movement was to blame for the Brookline abortion clinic murders?
The chorus was certainly singing a different tune on this one. The Globe ("Muslims Fear Being Made Scapegoats") and Los Angeles Times ("Muslim Community is Target of Threats, Abuse") put it right on Page 1. Other papers played it big inside, including The New York Times ("Fear About Retaliation Among Muslim Groups"), Boston Herald ("Islamic Community Concerned for Safety"), USA Today ("Arab-Americans Once Again Targets"), Chicago Tribune ("Muslim, Middle Eastern Communities Fear Backlash"), and Philadelphia Inquirer ("Fallout Hits Some Arab Americans").
Broadcast echoed print. TV networks, local affiliates, cable stations -- all of them took pains to defend the honor of Islam. One talking head after another voiced dismay at the speculation that Muslims or Arabs were responsible for the bombing.
Isn't something missing here?
One who belongs to the most vilified and persecuted minority in history, to borrow a phrase from the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, is not likely to underestimate the ugliness of the blood libel or minimize the dread it evokes in innocent people. No one but an ignoramus could believe that most Arabs in America are any less peaceable than their neighbors, or any more apt to be involved in terrorism.
(If anything, an American Arab or Muslim is more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than the perpetrator. Anti-Arab violence in America is rare, but it occurs. In 1985, a bomb blew up the California office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, killing regional director Alex Odeh. Two months earlier, a pipe bomb exploded outside the ADC's Boston office. And mosques have been attacked in Houston and Los Angeles.)
But let's be honest. It wasn't exactly implausible to suppose that the carnage in Oklahoma City might be the work of Arabs or Muslims. When Americans are murdered by terrorists, after all, Arabs or Muslims are nearly always the killers. For example, the World Trade Center. The Marines in their bunker. Those college kids over Lockerbie. The Beirut hostages who didn't survive. Robbie Stethem, the Navy diver on TWA 847. Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair. The two US diplomats assassinated in Khartoum. Ohio weightlifter David Berg, who went to the Olympics and returned in a coffin. Alisa Flatow of Brandeis University, bombed in Gaza on her spring vacation.
The great majority of Arabs and Muslims the world over live quiet lives and menace nobody. But a significant subset of Islam, the fundamentalists, is on the march -- preaching jihad, demonizing America, gunning down tourists, and practicing terror. Last week, many US Muslim leaders made a point of insisting that Islam is a peaceful and nonviolent religion. Yet time and time again, fanatics commit bloody enormities in Allah's name -- and sheiks and mullahs egg them on. And time and time again, one strains to hear any word of condemnation or revulsion or sorrow from America's Muslim and Arab spokesmen.
There are some people "of Middle Eastern extraction" in this country who dream of blowing up World Trade Centers. There are far more who dream the American Dream. It might be easier to differentiate between the two if the latter made it a point to denounce and express loathing of the former once in a while. Not just when parties unknown kill innocent children in Oklahoma, and American Arabs fear they might be scapegoated. The time to speak out is when Islamic fundamentalists or Palestinian extremists kill innocent children in Tel Aviv or over Lockerbie or on a Nile cruise ship, and nobody is blaming American Arabs.
If Islam truly abominates violence, American Muslims should say so -- loudly, unambiguously -- when violence is done by men professing Islam. If American Arabs don't want to be stereotyped as supporters of terrorism, they are obliged to cry out in anger and disgust whenever Arab terrorism occurs. Their hesitation to do so calls their credibility into question, and spawns the stereotypes they most want to avoid.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe)