9/11 Memorials, Anti-Arab Hate Crimes and Restorative Justice

Today in New York City there is a memorial service downtown for the victims of 9/11, and the local news channels serve as a kind of reverb chamber for those services as they simultaneously broadcast the same event on multiple channels, this despite the mayor’s nudge to the city to move forward, beyond grief.

There are only certain kinds of deaths that get memorialized today. The deaths of white, heteronormative families – the kinds of people who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald or the other financial services firms, and the firefighters. The facts of racial and economic inequality in place before the events of 9/11/01, ensured that those working at Cantor Fitzgerald and at the FDNY were predominantly white, male, and heterosexual. And, as the flags wave, the bagpipes wail, and the politicians speechify, it is not only these fallen victims and heroes that get mourned, it is also the systems of inequality that get legitimated in the process. Little remembered in the official ceremonies are the victims who did not fit this hegemonic image, such as the workers at the Windows on the World restaurant, many of whom were immigrants (some undocumented) or gay, and because of their liminal legal status not eligible for benefits and not visible in the landscape of 9/11 memorial iconography.

Also missing from the memorializing are remembrances of people like Balbir Singh Sodhi who was gunned down on Sept. 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona. The turban-wearing Sikh man was killed outside his gas station. Sodhi’s killer spent the hours before the murder in a bar,bragging of his intention to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11.” He has been convicted and sits on death row. And, in a cruel bit of irony, just before his murder Balbir Singh Sodhi emptied the contents of his wallet, $75, into a Red Cross 9/11 Fund relief jar–though when he became the victim, his family received nothing.

Anti-arab hate crimes, or perhaps more accurately, anti-arab-looking hate crimes, escalated astronomically after 9/11. This graph published by the BBC in 2005 and compiled from FBI statistics charts this dramatic increase.

Immediately following 9/11, there was a huge increase in anti-arab hate crimes, a surge of something like 1600% according to the FBI data and social scientists who have analyzed the data. Bryan Byers, a Ball State University professor who has done research on hate crimes following terrorist attacks, finds that the spike after 9/11 had a wide-reaching impact. In an interview in 2003, Byers is quoted saying,

We knew that followers of the Islamic faith were victims of hate crimes, but other groups suffered just as badly,” Byers said. “That is the nature of prejudice. People perceived as being different because of the color of their skin or dress, or perhaps mistaken as Islamic, were immediately considered outsiders. They became the new enemy for some Americans.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is an American Muslim civil rights organization. Their annual report on anti-Muslim incidents is the most thorough of its kind. According to the most recent report released in May 2005 entitled “Unequal Protection: The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States, nearly 80% of anti-Muslim crime was committed in only 10 states. 20% of crimes were committed in California, followed by New York (10%), Arizona (9%), Virginia (7%), Texas (7%), Florida (7%), Ohio (5%), Maryland (5%), New Jersey (5%), and Illinois (3%). One of the most salient increases from 2003 to 2004 is that of discrimination by police such as unwarranted arrests and searches. Along with some discussion of the CAIR report, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has an analysis of how hate crimes have affected Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews since 9/11.

As Byers notes in his research, the unique quality and greater magnitude of the attacks on 9/11, account in some measure for the sharp increase in hate crimes, the constant media coverage of the attacks also bears some of the responsibility for stirring up hostilities. But, blaming the media is too facile an explanation for the dynamics at play here.

Writing for the Village Voice, Solana Pyne has an excellent piece on the social science of racism, prejudice and discrimination following 9/11, in which she interviews some of the leading experts in the field. Among the interesting findings, Pyne connects the dots for readers about the pro-American jingoism that passes for patriotism and the rise in anti-Arab feelings when she writes:

“One of the new studies found that after 9-11 people thought better of politicians, firefighters, and Americans in general, but felt more negative toward U.S. citizens of Arab descent, new immigrants, Palestinians, and residents of Islamic or Middle Eastern countries. The findings, by social psychologist Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois at Chicago, to be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, dovetail with other, smaller studies in the wake of 9-11 that found that the more positively one felt about the U.S., the more likely one was to be anti-Arab.

“When you’re under threat, you tend to think of ‘who’s with me’ and ‘who’s against me,’ ” explained … psychologist Jack Dovidio, a specialist in the issues of prejudice and stereotyping.

Another ongoing research project, headed by Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, focuses on the subtler “implicit” feelings of 89 student participants and has found that the more they unconsciously favor the U.S. and even their university, the stronger their bias against Arab Americans. A similar study by researchers at Purdue and San Diego State University of 374 students, including 102 from NYU, identified the same link between patriotic feelings and prejudice against Arab Americans.

“We’re trying to figure out who we should be nervous about. We’re looking for social cues to tell us,” said David R. Harris, a racial demographer at the University of Michigan. “If the federal government has rules that tell us, or certain people get pulled off planes, that’s telling us pretty blatantly that this is the group to worry about.”

And, of course, race is always inflected with gender, because in determining the “racial Other” we are situating this within particular, gendered bodies, Pyne continues:

“By requiring male immigrants from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and other Muslim countries to register with authorities, the government is signaling that all males from those countries are dangerous, Harris and others agree. A similar message was sent in the months after 9-11, when the Justice Department detained 750 immigrants, mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern, on minor immigration violations to look for terrorist ties. A recent Department of Justice internal report tells how the government held many people without any proof of terrorist links, often for long periods of time, effectively stigmatizing entire groups.”

So, is there any way out of this morass of anti-Other hostility fueled by government surveillance and media pseudo-reporting? Perhaps the pathway lies in the notion of restorative justice. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Justice Review (Dec2003, Vol. 6 Issue 4, p383-391, copy-righted), Mark Umbreit and colleagues describe a particular incident which may provide a model. In the hours following 9/11, a hate crime was committed against the Islamic Cultural Center in Eugene, Oregon. Rather than following the conventional criminal justice process, the director of the center and his wife chose to engage in a process of restorative dialogue with other community members and the offender himself. This case study of moving from hatred to healing occurred in the larger context of restorative justice, a movement that is now developing in many hundreds of communities in more than 17 countries.

Restorative justice seems like a progressive alternative to the current, punitive and destructively harsh (not to mention racist) criminal justice system. I wonder, though, if restorative justice does not place too great burden on those who are victims of hate crimes to do the work of “restoring” the perpetrators. It may be a partial, beginning answer to our current dilemma. I know that we must find a way to move beyond a grief that memorializes inequality and glorifies pro-American sentiment, and justifies the continued loss of life, such as Balbir Singh Sodhi.