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Next Wave of Discrimination
An Essay by Judy Muller

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The toxic weed of discrimination always finds fertile soil in terrible times like this. It begins with just a seed or two, furtive looks or suspicious comments. And before you know it, it has taken root and spread its tendrils in every direction. The day after the attacks, a cab driver in Salt Lake City said to me, 'Don't quote me on this, but there's a rumor going around that the Arab cab drivers in this town stayed home yesterday.' I responded that if true perhaps it could be attributed to fear of discrimination. 'No,' he responded, 'I mean they didn't show up before the attacks took place.'

When I pointed out that it would be extremely doubtful that Arab cab drivers in Salt Lake City would have been informed in advance of such a secretive, well-organized plot, he had an answer for that as well. 'Oh, the Arab community is a very secretive bunch,' he replied, thus turning the word 'community' into an all-encompassing pejorative with sinister overtones. He said this as we were driving past the Mormon Temple, and I thought of the times I'd heard the same remarks made about Mormonism, that it's a secretive, cult-like community; or Orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians.

And so it begins to grow, this prickly, thorned prejudice, nourished by drops of ignorance. And sure enough, just 24 hours later, the papers were full of reports of violence and harassment aimed against Muslim Americans in cities all over the country -- from shots fired through shop windows to taunts aimed at schoolchildren. On the same day, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of several city buildings in downtown Salt Lake. As I talked with some of the evacuees who were waiting outside, one young man said, 'You know, I'm ashamed to say this, but when that Muslim woman over there reached inside her purse a minute ago, I actually flinched. I thought she might be reaching for a gun.'

I looked over to the person he'd indicated. A woman dressed in traditional Muslim garb was standing with a young man who appeared to be a relation. Sure enough, when I spoke with them, she introduced him as her son, Mohammed. They had become U.S. citizens after fleeing Iraq seven years ago. 'We had to get away from Saddam,' she said. 'Here my children go to school and we are not afraid.' I asked the son if he felt any backlash from the week's events. 'Yesterday,' he replied, 'a white guy pulled up next to me in a Jeep and said, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'Iraq.' The guy said, 'I hate you,' and pulled out a gun. Fortunately for this young man, that gun was never fired, but he conceded it was terrifying. For his mother it was terrifying and puzzling. 'I like the United States,' she said quietly. 'This is my country.'

The next day, as I was standing in line of a thousand people trying to check in for flights out of Salt Lake, a woman in front of me was talking about her concern that anti-Arab discrimination would spread. 'People might be tempted,' she said, 'to treat Arabs the way we treated the Japanese in World War II.' 'At last,' I thought, 'a voice of reason.' And then she added, 'Of course, you can't really blame them.'

Judy Muller is an ABC News correspondent and author of the book Now This.