WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Sept. 12, only one day after the assault on America, newspapers carried extensive reports about attacks on Muslim Americans. The media quoted community leaders at length about how unfair such attacks are. Editorials warned Americans not to repeat the tragic injustice that occurred when we detained Japanese Americans during World War II, just because of their race.
Long before the dust from the attacks had settled, the media were devoting considerable space to stories about Arab-American families who expressed distress over what happened, and accounts of their suffering. The media also reminded us that Islam per se neither blesses violence nor condones suicide.
Various religious leaders joined the media. They invited Muslim clergy to take leading roles in interfaith services at the National Cathedral in Washington and in churches and temples across the country, from Orange County, Calif., to Boston.
But there comes a moment when we have to decide if the media have bent too far backwards to avoid adding fuel to the roughly 90 incidents of hateful violence reported against Muslim Americans. Several oped writers had charged that those who noted that all the terrorists came from one religious group were engaging in "racial profiling." By the time we learned that numerous drivers of hazardous materials had acquired licenses under false pretenses, much of the media had ceased to identify their ethnicity. This made it harder on local authorities to focus their investigations.
Champions of good causes often call for leadership when they want the president to take the country to a place the majority does not necessarily want to go. Politicians often demur, playing instead to the galleries. But in this case, President Bush exercised true leadership.
It might well have been more "political" for him and other elected leaders to play on the raw instincts of millions of Americans who feel threatened and humiliated. Instead, President Bush visited a mosque within days of the attack, and said, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace." He also quoted the Koran's exhortations against evil. He repeated that we have no quarrel with Muslims, only with terrorists, as if these terrorists did not justify their acts with their interpretation of Islam and committed suicide believing that it was a sure ticket to Muslim heaven. Also, FBI agents were taken off other urgent duties to investigate hate crimes against Muslim Americans.
I say all of this in spite of my belief - from media interviews on the street and some informal interviewing of my own - that many Americans are thirsting for revenge. In their anger, not all Americans are willing to draw a careful line between the true culprits and those who just look and dress and pray as they do.
Yet no American leader or media member I could find tried to excuse the wave of attacks on Muslim Americans. Nor did I find anybody who stated that we often face hate crimes against all kinds of minorities, and that Arab-Americans were not being treated that differently. Nobody pointed to unprovoked race riots in British cities or to the fire bombing of sanctuaries of asylum-seekers in Germany to argue that we are not as bad as many others.
It is not obvious why the media, the president, community leaders have acted so responsibly so soon after the greatest attack on our homeland, when the nation was still so raw and emotional.
Many factors seem to have converged to form our response. The media and public leaders have drawn on and appealed to our religious traditions, which are much stronger in America than in Europe, and which urge forgiveness and make hate a taboo. We are a nation of immigrants, and hence have learned better than most nations, if not all, how to live with people who are different - although, as we just witnessed, we have a ways to go.
We have raised our commitment to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights to the level of a civic religion, a "religion" to which our leaders can appeal and gain some traction. And many are still working off the guilt for what the United States has done to various minorities, from Japanese to African-Americans. Here and there, a touch of political correctness - much stronger on these shores than on the Continent - may also have sneaked in.
There are many reasons these days to be proud to be an American: the hundreds of firefighters and police who rushed to pay the highest price in answering their calling; scores who risked their lives helping others make it out of the twin tower infernos; long lines of blood donors and volunteers; the gifts that have flooded Salvation Army warehouses until they spilled into the streets; the spirit of community that engulfed the country and made it, once again, into one. But high on the list, too, is the concerted effort to suppress expressions of anger against the terrorists from spilling over to the religious group from which they hail.
Amitai Etzioni teaches sociology at George Washington University, and is the author of 'The Spirit of Community' (Crown Books, 1993), among other books.