One Year Later: Arab American Rights are Defended

James Zogby’s Column

“Jim, all Arabs must die.  I’ll slit your throat and murder your children.”

That was the message that Zachary Rolnik, a 40 year-old Boston businessman, left for me in the early morning hours of September 12, 2001.  I was, of course, concerned.  We were all still reeling from the terrible shock of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  There were so many unanswered questions.  So many fears.  And then this threat.

I am no stranger to threats.  My office was firebombed in 1980.  And I have often received hate mail and threatening messages.  This one seemed real.  The voice was so cold and calculating.  He mentioned my name and spoke of hurting my children.

I, therefore, reported it to the FBI and the local police.  They came to my office and after listening to the message, told me that it sounded real and, therefore, should be treated seriously.

Washington’s police provided us with immediate protection, posting two cars outside of my building for 10 days.  This threat, and others we received, became a matter of concern for other offices in my building.  In response, the management created new security procedures and others in our building offered us moral and personal support.

But this was not all.  The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI also took this threat seriously.  The heads of both divisions had publicly committed that they would act to defend the rights of Arab Americans and they did.

 After a month, they found Rolnik, charged him with a federal crime violating the civil rights of a community leader and obtained a guilty plea.

Overall, the DOJ and the FBI have been true to their word.  They have made an unprecedented effort to find and punish those who committed crimes of hate against Arab Americans.  Thus far they have opened over 350 investigations.  In 80 cases they have apprehended and charged individuals and are actively prosecuting them.  Seventy of these cases are in state courts.  Ten, including the Rolnik case, are in Federal Court.  Some of the convictions they have already won include:

a Wisconsin man who telephoned a bomb threat to a Jordanian American owned business.  The guilty man is now serving a two-year sentence;

a man who threatened a group of Sikhs was sentenced to two years probation;

a Utah man is serving a four year term for setting fire to a Palestinian restaurant; and

a Wisconsin man will serve 21 months for sending an anthrax hoax letter to an Arab American restaurant.

There are but a few of the convictions achieved in defense of Arab Americans and others victimized by hate crimes after September 11.

Just this week, another one of these cases was resolved when Mr. Rolnik was sentenced to two months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.  Some were displeased with the behavior of the Judge and the manner of which he disposed of this sentence, but it was clear where the DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s office stood.  In a release issued by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ after the Rolnik sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd noted,

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, this case is a reminder that the federal government will not tolerate violence based on religion or ethnicity.  The Department of Justice will do everything in its power to ensure that people of all backgrounds and beliefs live in this nation free of the threat of violence or harassment.”

In even stronger language, the U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted the Rolnik case stated, “Targeting someone with threats of unprovoked violence is unacceptable in any circumstance.  When it is done simply because of someone’s ethnicity or religion, it is even more repulsive and unconscionable.”

As a result of this concerted effort by federal officials, Arab Americans can feel more certain that they will be protected from hate criminals.  These cases, after all, represent the first time that individuals who threatened Arab Americans or harassed Arab Americans have actually been prosecuted.

Even with this, concerns still remain.  Arab Americans are concerned with other actions by the Attorney General that threaten civil liberties and create fear and suspicion.  Both the USA Patriot Act and initiatives launched by the Attorney General, in the aftermath of September 11, have endangered basic constitutionally protected rights of due process and judicial review.

What has been especially important is that most of these actions have received criticism.  Already these unconstitutional practices have been challenged in federal court, where judges have ruled against the government’s actions.  Members of Congress have begun to speak out as well.  And a broad coalition of civil rights organization has formed and begun to mobilize in direct challenge to the so-called “Patriot Act” and the actions of the Attorney General.

As a result, it appears that Arab Americans can feel more, not less, secure.  Dark days followed the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Hate crimes were followed by threats to civil liberties.  While many concerns remain, it seems clear that the hate criminals are being prosecuted and Americans across the political spectrum, are standing tall to defend both their Arab American fellow citizens and the constitutional rights that they deem are at risk.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.