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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2001 /4 Tishrei, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Prejudice or prudence? -- FOR some odd reason, one of the countless factoids scrolling across the bottom of the television screen last week entered my memory bank and stayed. As the story of what happened on September 11 pieced itself together from a mass of presidential statements, black-box updates and dragnet bulletins, along came an offbeat bit of news about Osama bin Laden's brother having endowed a scholarship at Harvard. Certainly, this info-scrap bears no weight on what President Bush inspirationally called "this crusade, this war on terrorism." (His spokesman has since expressed regret for riling Arab and Muslim quarters with the word "crusade." More on that later.) But the symbolism of Brother bin Laden and Harvard turns out to have a heft of its own.

Remember when Yale couldn't bring itself to spend a $20 million gift from the Bass family to set up a humanities program in Western civilization? Not long before Lee Bass took his money back from Yale, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden was handing over an undisclosed sum to Harvard to fund Islamic legal studies at Harvard Law School and Islamic art and architecture studies at the Harvard School of Design. Without belaboring the point, it seems reasonable to say that in multicultural academe, where the creed is "diversity" or bust, Islamic studies will trump Western civ every time -- and maybe even after September 11.

But what does the predictable political correctness of the Ivy League have to do with the surprise attack of militant Islam against the United States? Simply this: There may be an enlightening glimmer to be found in the comparison between Harvard's swift embrace of bin-Laden-funded Islamic studies and the Western civilization obstacle course encountered at Yale. Maybe the fashionable pursuit of diversity to the point of cultural abnegation explains something about the ease with which the terrorists were able to launch their attacks on America from America.

Assuredly, it's a testament to the seemingly boundless tolerance of the American people that so many men of militant Islam were able to live, train, and travel to their deadly mission without seeming to have furrowed a single brow in suspicion. In the end, of course, this is nothing to be proud of. Take the case of the security checker who, with a cheery "have a nice flight," sent five Arabic men in khaki pants and tennis shirts through the gate at Logan Airport onto United Airlines Flight 175. Understandably, as the New York Post reports, she is now and forever a haunted woman, particularly by one hijacker she recalls as having acted "odd" -- neither speaking nor making eye contact. Why, she must wonder, did she not pause to check him out? Was she fighting an internal battle against the targeted prejudice of "profiling"? Americans must now begin to ask themselves where the onus of prejudice ends and the liberating effects of prudence begin.

For now, though, there is still a weird reluctance to accept crucial facts about our adversaries, beginning with their ethnic and religious identities. While we all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of guiltless citizens of Islamic faith and Arab ancestry, it's beginning to feel as though Americans have entered into a state of perpetual denial. We are now living under an unendurable threat of murder and mayhem from Islamics, however extreme, of Arab ancestry. But there is no official attempt to come to grips with this.

At the highest levels, Washington tells us our war is with generic "terrorism" and generic "terrorists," or, alternately, with one particular terrorist named Osama bin Laden. At the local level, a New York tip sheet for helping children through the trauma of the attack warns parents to "Be careful not to stereotype or demean the people or countries thought to be homes of the terrorists. Children can easily generalize negative statements and develop prejudice."

Kiddies aside, is it "stereotyping" to identify the hateful scourge of radical Islam as our enemy or our attackers? Is it "demeaning" to want to defeat that scourge wherever it exists? Are there no "negative statements" that may be fairly "generalized," if only for safety's sake? Meanwhile, it seems a tad self-defeating to launch a campaign against a terror network that includes large swaths of humanity without a few good stereotypes.

That's foolish political correctness, one of whose worst aspects is its distortion of the truth for political ends. This notion came to mind on hearing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer hedge on the president's apt choice of the word "crusade" to describe the struggle ahead. It may seem like a small thing to cling to, but the fact is, this fight is a crusade -- or it should be. And winning it will depend as much on facing the truth as facing the enemy.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West