AUSTIN, Texas - The fate of Flight 587 is not just a free-standing tragedy, but almost the last thing we needed. Even if the cause remains a mystery, the edginess quotient just shot back up again.
It has seemed to me the media have been engaging in a slightly unseemly amount of navel-gazing concerning our nerves, with perhaps excessive media temperature-taking of anxiety levels, crooning over stress on the home front, etc. Americans on the front lines of this war, including the NYFD, are handling their jobs without swooning, and from my own travels around the country, it seems to me most of the rest of us are managing to comport ourselves with reason and dignity, whatever our anxiety levels.
Unfortunately, the few nincompoops among us now have fresh occasion for hysteria: The always-timely advice THINK comes to mind. The absolute last thing we need is another round of Arab-bashing.
Our most valuable resource against terrorism in the long run will almost certainly be Arab-Americans. Among them are the bravest of the brave. Look at why many of them are here: They are Iraqis who fought Saddam Hussein, Syrians who fought Hafez Assad and Iranians who opposed the ayatollah. They are Lebanese who saw their country torn to shreds by fanatics. They have the language, the culture and the commitment. We can't send blond, blue-eyed Texans to infiltrate al-Qaida. (I have a life-size vision of a Texan in the back of some terrorist meeting room saying, "Don't mind me, y'all.")
The misguided zeal of our most pinheaded patriots has already led to attacks on individuals (including one dead Sikh from India) and on mosques. Most of us agree such attacks are criminal folly, but there are still many who condone and encourage prejudice and discrimination in the name of patriotism. Since Sept. 11, Arab-Americans have not only been physically attacked, but also harassed, discriminated against, fired because of their ethnicity and treated shabbily in a variety of ways, up to and including being rounded up and held on the flimsiest imaginable grounds. This is, among other things, profoundly stupid.
We all understand the pressures on law enforcement. Heaven forbid anyone should let an actual terrorist go. Of course they'd rather err on the side of caution. But even our flimsy visa system should have provided evidence by now about who is an established American citizen and who is here illegally.
When in doubt, hold them - fine. But it is not the fault of Arab-Americans that we had a visa system so full of holes. The Boston Globe has reported the families of Arab-Americans who died in the World Trade Center are having an especially difficult time with the hostility directed against them because of their ethnicity.
If we had our wits about us, we would be showering Arab-Americans with tender loving care. In fact, the more thoughtful among us have already circulated lists via e-mail about what those who know Arab-Americans can do to help - call, offer escort, etc.
The situation of the Sikhs, turbaned Indians of a different religion entirely, is pathetic. Perhaps we need one of those old National Brotherhood Weeks - Take a Sikh to Lunch. Older Japanese-Americans are in a special position to understand what Arab-Americans are going through, as are other Americans who have experienced racism. The Transportation Department has already put out a circular to airport security personnel advising them of the humiliation suffered by Sikh men and Arab women forced to uncover their heads in public.
Also on the hysteria front, assorted armchair warriors have advocated using torture against the detainees. Look, we got through two world wars without stooping that low - and, sticking to the "whatever works" program, torture doesn't. You can torture someone into confessing anything, but that doesn't help move an investigation forward. As all cops know, false confessions just screw up an investigation. Put the bastinadoes away.
Most Americans are behaving noticeably well - that a stringent Midwestern sensibleness is so helpful in a crisis. How many times has President Bush said this is going to be a long, difficult struggle? He's right. And one of the things we can do to help is try to prevent our more easily excited citizens from going off half-cocked against Arab-Americans, one of our most valuable national resources.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.