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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Op-ed: Does US insecurity put liberty at risk?

The BBC Persian Service's Kambiz Fattahi recounts his own experience of being singled out on the basis of his appearance and asks whether fears of terrorism are undermining America's traditional values.

People often ask if I have ever experienced prejudice in the US because of my Iranian background.

Up to now, I have always replied in the negative.

The last place I ever expected to encounter ignorance and apparent discrimination was at my university, a place renowned for international studies.

But last week, at Georgetown University's graduation ceremony, I found myself in shock and awe.

In awe at the inspiring keynote speech about America's tradition of freedom made by Harvard historian Dr Bernard Bailyn....

Two portly university security guards brought me back to reality.

"Please come with us," one of them ordered. He caught me off guard. When I asked why, he told me, "You're making some people here nervous."

It was disturbing to think that nothing more than my Middle Eastern appearance had aroused someone's suspicion. More shocking was the blunt inquiry of one of the guards about my national origin.

I told him I was a US citizen. After showing forms of identification, including my card from the BBC Persian Service, he commented: "So, you're from Persia. Aren't Babylon and the Tigris River in Persia?"

Officials at Georgetown say they have strict policies prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, and have begun an investigation into the matter....

This prominent university boasts on its website of a student body representing over 130 countries, and requires its first-year students to complete a "Pluralism in Action" programme even before beginning their studies.

Given this, the guard's cultural insensitivity took me by surprise. But observers note that this kind of singling out has become pervasive in the US since the terror attacks of 9/11....

The guards at Georgetown eventually let me go, too late to see my friend walk across the stage to collect her degree.

As I left the building - which nine months earlier had housed the Pluralism in Action programme - Georgetown's President John J DeGioia's remarks to the graduating class resonated in my head.

"You will face challenges - and enjoy opportunities - that previous generations of citizens and leaders, scientists and scholars could not even have imagined."

Apparently, one of these challenges will be how America can address its insecurities, compounded by 9/11 and the immigration debate, all the while preserving its ideals of "liberty and justice for all". [Link]

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