Almost as soon as the planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the threatening calls began at the Washington headquarters of the Arab American Institute.
Anonymous callers threatened retribution and offered sarcastic compliments on the attacks. The building was evacuated, but managing director Jean AbiNader stayed behind to deal with the all-too-familiar backlash that follows terrorist incidents.
It follows with certainty when lives are lost in suspected acts of political violence, and for the nation's estimated 3 million citizens of Arab descent, the result ranges from slurs to unwarranted scrutiny by law enforcement officers, AbiNader said.
By yesterday afternoon, AbiNader said, his two teen-age children had borne the brunt of derogatory comments by classmates. And a report had come into his office about District of Columbia police being instructed to keep a close eye on Arabs.
The institute released a statement: "We urge our fellow citizens not to rush to judgment and point fingers at their Arab-American neighbors and colleagues who are suffering, like all Americans, from these despicable acts."
The institute has worked for years with the Federal Aviation Administration to end racial profiling of Arab travelers. "This will set us back years," AbiNader said.
"We are Americans, and we are part of the fabric of this country and don't want to see anything that hurts it," said AbiNader, a native of Pittsburgh. He had a personal worry yesterday: his brother-in-law worked in the World Trade Center and, as of yesterday afternoon, had not been heard from.
Street celebrations by Arabs in the Mideast yesterday were a "sick" and "irrational" response to the crimes, he said. "They think this is about God's will and cosmic justice. They don't feel they have any hope," he said.
In the hours after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Arabs were singled out for harassment by talk-radio hosts, and Arab-owned businesses were vandalized before police arrested Timothy J. McVeigh.
The backlash took on an official tone during the Iranian hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were taken hostage in 1979 and held for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The FBI infiltrated Arab groups, Arab scholars found tenure applications denied and students were harassed, AbiNader said.
He urged President Bush and other leaders to refrain from reprisals based on ethnicity or religion.
"Why do people come to this country? It has values that can't be found anywhere else: freedom and tolerance. These things become endangered after events like this," he said.
Hassan M. Makhzoumi, a prominent Baltimore physician and president of An-Nur Islamic Society, Baltimore's second-largest mosque, said, "It's like having a member of your family who is irresponsible and goes around attacking your neighbors and your neighbors come back at you."
He said the mosque is planning a blood drive to help victims and will pray for the families of those who were killed.
He said he would be doubly pained if the terrorists acted in the name of Islam. "It is frustrating to us because it is the furthest thing from our religion," said Makhzoumi, an Iraq-born American citizen.
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, based in Plainfield, Ind., which also condemned the attack, said the nation has matured in its understanding of the issue since the hostage crisis. Most people now realize that such acts of violence are forbidden by mainstream Islamic theology, he said.
"Terrorism is totally away from spirituality and religion," he said.