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Saturday, October 29, 2005

In Defense of Democracy

August, 26-2005- Today was our very last day of interviews. It was only appropriate that our final two interviewees held opposing positions on how to defend American democracy in the post-9/11 era: one believes that we need to target undocumented immigrants and use racial profiling in security searches, and the other believes that such state policies are a form of public violence that encourage private hate violence. Both were intriguing.

We first interviewed CLIFFORD MAY (pictured below), President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is also Chairman of the Policy Committee of the Committee on the Present Danger. With a sharp and confident voice, Clifford May shared with us his reflections on what is required to defend American democracy:

"The democratic experiment has been under threat since the beginning. It was under intense threat in 20th century from totalitarian moments: Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Radical Islam is also a totalitarian move... All these movements are profoundly anti-democratic, against human rights and free choice. They must be taken at least as seriously as the ones in the past.

"After 9/11, there is no question that the Justice Deptartment took more seriously than in the past those in this country illegally and especially those from parts of the world where terrorists are recruited... We should welcome guests and immigrants. We should insist that people should not be here illegally. But if you come into this country, we need to know your name and why you’re here. You can't be underground because that’s scary to us at this point... 1.2 billion Muslims need to understand that they must choose to fight the free world or join free world. The free world welcomes them with open arms, but if they fight, we must defend ourselves.

"I’m not for racial profiling, I’m for terrorist profiling. If you put in what you know about a terrorist into the computer, he will be male, not over eighty and not under ten years of age. On September 11, all nineteen terrorists were young, male, and from Muslim countries. You just can’t ignore it. I think most people would be willing to accept the inconvenience... Freedom is under attack. All people who are freedom-loving must join together for the fight."

Our final interview was with MUNEER AHMAD (pictured), Professor of Law at American University. He discussed the state's use of immigration law as part of a larger form of public violence that targets Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. He distinguished this from private violence, and argued that the two operate in tandem:

"Within a couple of weeks after 9/11, there were more than a thousand incidents: murder, assaults, vandalism of places of worships, homes, stores, and racial epithets. That’s what we tend to think of as private violence. Starting soon after that began another form of violence from the government: public violence. The government began to remove people from planes, search people in racially targeted way, and craft policies that targeted people thought to be Muslim, Arab, or South Asian. There was an expansion in immigration enforcement in racially targeted ways. Immigration law is a series of trip wires. It is a complex arcane area, and it's very easy for citizen to commit immigration violation without knowing it. It became much easier for the government to use immigration law rather than criminal law to pick up and detain immigrants.

"People tend to think of private and public violence as separate, but I think that they operate in tandem. Once the government responds with racial programs and policies, it communicates to private citizens what is permissable and what is not. If it's okay for the government to engage in racial profiling, then it becomes okay for private citizens to engage in racial profiling.

"9/11 produced a signal moment when a new racial category was created. People might have had a sense of Arabs as different from whites or African Americans, but the borders of this category were not fully formed in American racial discourse. The same is true for South Asians and Muslims. After 9/11, all these categories consolidate into a single category, described in different ways. Terrorist-looking. Now the assumption is that all terrorists are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists. Well, who is terrorist-looking? Its sweep is so large. It includes Arabs and South Asians. A significant percentage of Arabs are Christians, and a significant number of South Asians are Christians or Sikhs. Certainly the Sikh community has seen vigilante violence directed toward its members. A significant number in the Muslim community is African American. If you start to pull it apart, it doesn’t make much sense.

"Laws and policies are a form of government speech. They send a message and they continue a kind of ideology that is picked up in the culture. It is now a standard joke on Letterman or Leno about the turbaned man kicked off of an airplane. This is not an individual act but a government act. This collection of government policies and acts constitutes a state ideology after 9/11; it is an ideology of violence. It constructs these communities as enemy, as foreign, as traitors, as not to be trusted, and therefore as worthy of punishment. It's hard for governments to articulate that kind of ideology and not expect individuals in the country to espouse the same ideology."

It was a long day and both interviews were deeply compelling. Our interview with Professor Ahmad became our last interview of the entire summer's production. We have one more day of b-roll in Washington, DC. We are just on the brink of celebrating, but there is still work to do. Our director Sharat Raju is pictured coordinating our final day.

I took one last glance into our film camera set up for interviews before we took it down (pictured below). I am satisfied with the voices we captured. We talked again with many of the people I had first interviewed four years ago. And we gathered a range of political views on how we should respond in this post-9/11 world.

When we are done tomorrow, we'll have 30 hours of film footage from this summer. Add this to the 100 hours of high-8 footage from the fall of 2001. We have our work in the editing room. Best not to think about it just yet. Instead, we'll focus on one more day of production... and our inevitable celebration.

Support our film.

[This entry is cross-posted on "Into the Whirlwind."]

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