Last week I became involved in a controversy with the Bush reelection committee. The dispute was over a new television advertisement released by the President’s campaign that, I believe, negatively stereotypes Arabs. Supporters of the President said I was wrong. They said I was being overly sensitive, creating an issue where none existed. And when I persisted, they said I was objecting merely because I was a Democrat and, therefore, my criticism was nothing more than partisan politics.
The truth is quite the opposite. The ad is wrong, insensitive and harmful to Arab Americans. It should be changed.
Let me explain.
The actual text of the 30-second ad is a quite simple and direct attack on Bush’s Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry. Kerry is criticized for being weak on defense, taxes and terrorism.
The ad begins with President Bush saying, "I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message."
Then a woman’s voice narrates the rest of the ad saying,
"A President sets his agenda for America in the first 100 days.
"John Kerry’s plan: To pay for new government spending, raise taxes by at least $900 billion.
"On the War on Terror: Weaken the Patriot Act used to arrest terrorists and protect America. And he wanted to delay defending America until the United Nations approved.
"John Kerry: Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense."
When the narrator says the line "on the war on terror…" the words-"John Kerry’s Plan" … "Weaken Fight Against Terrorists"-flash on the screen. Three pictures unfold in sequence, each taking up one-third of the screen. The first is of a traveler in an airport followed by a person in a chemical-weapons suit. The final sequence is of an unidentified, but clearly Middle-Eastern looking, young man slowly turning his head and looking menacingly into the camera.
While the Kerry campaign addressed their concerns with how the ad portrays the Senator’s positions on taxes, the Patriot Act and the war with Iraq, what troubled me was the way the ad used a young Middle Eastern-looking male to evoke fear of terrorists. This was negative stereotyping at its worst and, as I wrote to the campaign manger of the President’s reelection effort, it "undercuts the message of tolerance that President Bush issued to the nation in the wake of September 11th…the use of this type of imagery can only reinforce and build upon the fear and suspicion that law-abiding Arab Americans and Arab immigrants are already subject to."
If the ad had used the face of Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, or even Timothy McVeigh, I wouldn’t have objected. But the use of what appeared to be a young Middle Eastern man was a different matter. I have sons who look like that young man. There are U.S. soldiers who look like him too. In fact there are millions of Americans (of many ethnicities) and many more over the world who look like that face in the ad.
That is what is wrong with negative stereotyping and racial profiling. And that is why the President was right to insist that the campaign against terror was not about Arabs or Muslims in general. Rather it was about a small group of terrorists. I, therefore, concluded my letter with a simple request that the campaign merely change that one image.
The campaign’s response was disappointing and disingenuous. The face was not an Arab, they said. It was an Italian American actor. They said that they were not intending to portray an Arab or Muslim-just a young man. Then, as if to make my point, a Bush campaign spokesperson said, "the images in the ad fairly represent the challenges and threats we face"!
Now I know this business well enough to know that the content of the 30-second ad was quite deliberate. Every frame, every word, every photo was designed and tested for maximum impact. And that is why I was concerned.
The visual of a young man turning and giving a menacing look into the camera at the mention of the words "arrest terrorists and protect America" was intended to evoke fear-and the object of that fear was the young Middle-Eastern looking man.
This was precisely what we had to fight against after September 11. The backlash of fear, suspicion and violence directed against people who merely looked Arab was quite terrifying. In some cases the victims of this backlash were Hispanic, Greek, Indian or Sikh-all because of how they looked.
As my objections became public, I responded to press queries, engaged in some media debates and received emails that only reinforced my concerns. "Aren’t the terrorists all Arabs?" or "who else should we be afraid of?" was a common refrain of those who wrote and called.
This was the same fear and prejudice the ad’s designers were playing off of and feeding into-the fear and negative stereotype that caused the backlash after September 11, that prompted the President to warn Americans not to discriminate against or strike out against Arabs and Muslims.
While the President’s words had had a profound and salutary effect after September 11, the problem of discrimination has been fed by the policies of some in his Administration and by statements of some of his strongest supporters-none of which have been condemned by the White House. For example, Attorney General John Ashcroft, in addition to making expanded use of discriminatory profiling in rounding-up, detaining and deporting thousands of young Arab and Muslim males, also made an outrageous comment about Islam. So has a high level Pentagon official, Lt. General Jerry Boykin. Neither Ashcroft nor Boykin have apologized for their remarks, nor have they been officially rebuked for making them. Strong supporters of the Administration on the religious right like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham have also made public comments displaying a deep animus toward Arabs and Muslims. And most recently, Republican Congressman Peter King, promoting his new book, has repeatedly made outrageous comments calling into question the loyalty of American Muslims.
And now this advertisement. My criticism is not wrong, nor is it a case of my being overly sensitive or partisan. It is based on my awareness of the impact that negative stereotyping has had on Arab Americans and my concern that it is now being reinforced by a group acting on behalf of the President of the United States.