Better to be silent than out of step when Bush bangs the drum

Click to follow

With the Stars and Stripes seemingly hanging from every other balcony and with people who believe they are at war issuing calls of "God Bless America" every other minute, this is no time to step out of line. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution may ensure the right to free speech but, for now, it is easier – and safer – to keep quiet.

In the aftermath of last week's terror attacks, America is a country united in the belief that it is the blameless victim. In the media, on the streets, in workplaces across the country and among politicians there is plenty of graphic talk about how these attacks were so casually inflicted, but there is very little discussion of why.

One lawyer in Washington, who asked not to be named, said: "In my office the atmosphere is very strange. Everyone is acting really patriotically but without even really thinking. I find it easier not to say anything. No one wants to hear about American policies or how they might have influenced or caused what has happened."

On Capitol Hill, where there has been much talk of a united, bipartisan response, only one member has refused to toe the accepted line. Barbara Lee, the House Representative for the Ninth District of California, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, was the sole dissenting member in a 420-1 vote on a resolution giving President George Bush a free hand to mount a retaliation.

"However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint," she told the House before the vote. "Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, 'Let's step back for a moment and think through the implications of our action today so that it does not spiral out of control'.

"I have agonised over this vote. But I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful memorial service today. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, 'As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore'."

Such a lack of dissent in a country famous for its dissenters may be understandable at this time. Of far more concern is the intolerance being shown to America's Arab and Muslim communities – and those people thought to belong to such groups. There are growing reports of attacks on mosques and Arab individuals. A Muslim and a Sikh have been murdered in what are being treated as racial killings. In all, the FBI is investigating 40 such "hate crimes" and "vigilante attacks".

Though President Bush has condemned such attacks and spoke of Islam as a religion of peace when he visited Washington's Islamic Centre, the mood in America is such that judges have postponed several trials of Muslims amid fears that they are unlikely to receive a fair hearing.

The judges are concerned that some jurors may hold views about Muslims that are influenced by the attacks. One poll said that 68 per cent of people approved of those fitting the profile of suspected terrorists – based on ethnicity – being stopped by police.

In Santa Ana, California, the case against an Egyptian immigrant accused of killing a child has been put on hold. The judge said he was dismissing 163 prospective jurors because it appeared John Ghobrial would not get a fair hearing and he delayed the trial until 28 September to allow time for emotions to cool.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a judge cited the same reasons for delaying the murder trial of a Muslim cleric, Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, who is accused of killing a police officer and could get the death penalty if found guilty. Here, the judge postponed the trial until January.

Muslims have not been the only victims of the backlash. A Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed last Saturday when a gunman drove into the Arizona service station he ran and fired three shots. Mr Sodhi, originally from the Punjab, had lived in America for about 10 years and his family said he had been planning to return to India to be with his wife and son.

"We don't deserve this treatment," said Mr Sodhi's younger brother, Latwinder Singh Sodhi. "Since we wear turban and beard, 99 per cent of Americans think we belong to bin Laden. They come to our store, tell us we are terrorists and ask us to go back to our country."

When President Bush declared a State of Emergency last week he activated about 500 dormant powers, including the right to impose martial law and censorship and suspend habeas corpus.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called for tolerance and respect. "We are deeply disturbed about the increasing reports of violence and threats against Muslims, Arab Americans, Sikhs and other ethnic and religious minorities that we've seen in communities across the country," said Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director. "At the same time we are also gratified when we see police officials take these reports seriously and move to protect everyone in America."