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Leaving Our Rights Behind

Sometimes life mirrors the comic strips. The recent “Doonesbury” series on ethnic profiling was frighteningly accurate and reflective of our current reality.

I should know; on Oct. 12, I was ordered off a Delta Airlines flight at Raleigh-Durham International Airport because a panic-stricken passenger seated to my immediate right said I made him nervous.

The plane’s captain explained that he was removing me because I had created an “uncomfortable” environment. He refused to hear my explanation, and I was quickly escorted off the airplane.

Had he listened, he would have learned that the fear and discomfort the complaining passenger apparently felt were in response to discovering that I’m originally from Lebanon. As in the comic strip, I was guilty of “flying while Arab” (akin to “driving while black”). As one who teaches children to respect differences, recognize similarities and appreciate connections between peoples, I was shocked and insulted by this xenophobic discrimination.

Given the horrific hijackings of Sept. 11, and last month’s attempted attack using a shoe bomb in mid-flight, the need for heightened security at airports is painfully obvious. Yet racism and hatred of foreigners must not be allowed to replace good judgment and wise security measures.

The most recent high-profile example is the case of the Arab-American Secret Service officer, entrusted with protecting the life of the president, who was taken off a commercial flight on Christmas Day, in part because he “looked suspicious.” Vigilance is good, but racism is bad; let’s not let one become the other.

Incidents like these illustrate how quickly civil rights can be lost. After the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the planned military tribunals, fundamental civil liberties are being violated.

Ignore your rights, and they will go away — for all of us, immigrants and citizens alike. We must protect our freedom, not sacrifice it through fear. And it is precisely during a time of national emergency when abiding by our valued American principles is most critical. If we believe in the principles symbolized by our flag, “liberty and justice for all,” then Attorney General John Ashcroft is wrong in suggesting that some people do not deserve due process of the law. Just as we have zero tolerance for terrorism, we must have zero tolerance for violations of civil and human rights for all residents of the United States.

It is not possible to have racial profiling, ethnic/religious discrimination, arbitrary arrests and detentions — and then expect to return to the principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Today, people of Middle Eastern descent, including some congressmen (one of whom was also refused a seat on a commercial flight), are part of “the other” being targeted. An injustice against one violates all of our rights as it damages protections we each cherish. We must raise freedom’s torch higher instead of letting go of our civil and human rights to quench our anxieties.

The abridgment of civil rights has too often been deemed acceptable during times of war, as evidenced by the internment of American citizens of Japanese heritage during World War II. Are we to believe that after the war everything was made right again, even though there are many stories to the contrary?

This war on terrorism is open-ended, much like the everlasting war on drugs. When will it be possible to declare victory? Can we risk waiting that long while civil rights continue to be eroded? Shall we wait until our Bill of Rights becomes a relic and our freedoms a mere memory? When and how will we regain our squandered rights?

We are a proud nation and we must remember who we are. Except for the indigenous peoples, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and we have all gained much from the continuing diversity and varied contributions that all have carried with them and passed on to this great nation.

Thus, racial profiling ultimately affects us all — Native American, Asian-American, African-American, Arab-American, Latin-American, Euro-American or any other flavor of law-abiding person — and regardless of the popularity of one’s socio-political views.

United We Stand must bring together people of diverse ethnicities and persuasions with respect, tolerance and true allegiance to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Otherwise, fear and ignorance will prevail, and there will be no real peace and security to enjoy in the New Year.

Wael Masri lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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