As a hijacked plane tore into the World Trade Center and billowing smoke enveloped the New York City skyline, Niraj Warikoo was asleep in his Detroit apartment nearly 500 miles away. Slated to cover Tuesday night’s local primary election, the Detroit Free Press reporter had not planned to show up for work until the late afternoon. That all changed, however, when his editor awakened him with a phone call and told him to turn on his television set. As he did so, Warikoo caught the horrific sight of a second plane plunging into one of the distinctive high-rise towers and watched the fiery wreckage from another deliberate plane crash into the Pentagon. Witnessing the worst terrorist attack in American history, Warikoo knew immediately what he needed to do. He grabbed the list of phone numbers he keeps at home and began calling sources in the Arab American community to talk about the stunning scenes unfolding on his television screen and what was certain to follow. Although he had been covering stories in the Arab American community for several years and had a number of sources, Warikoo approached the phone calls with some trepidation. He reminded himself of what happened in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing when the media, public officials and others speculated on who was behind that 1995 carnage. They erroneously blamed Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim extremists or Arab terrorists for the bombing, and caught in the middle of the public crossfire were innocent members of the Arab American community. “I didn’t want to jump to conclusions,” said Warikoo. “That was important in my mind. I remember Oklahoma City. A lot of people got hurt [by the speculation], and I didn’t want to make that mistake.” At the same time, Warikoo also wanted to be a prudent and thorough reporter. He wanted to be realistic as to who may be behind the terrorist attacks. And he also realized that no matter who was responsible for the devastation, Arab Americans, Muslims, and others who were seen as part of that community would be targets of the vitriol over the death and destruction. As he made the phone calls, Warikoo found that that the trust he had built from his past coverage of the Arab American community helped. It enabled him to reach people swiftly and to get people to talk candidly and comfortably. He also discovered that Arab American community leaders wanted to be interviewed, eager for the opportunity to join other Americans in expressing their sorrow at what had happened and to distance themselves from those who had carried out the terrorist operation. The sources also confirmed his feeling that Arab Americans were fearful they would be caught in the ensuing backlash. After including some quotes for a special street edition and gathering additional interviews for his next-day piece, Warikoo left his apartment for the local Arab American neighborhoods where he would focus his part of covering the biggest story in the world. Warikoo, of course, was not alone in writing about the Arab American community the week of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. There were other journalists who spent time on the phones and in the streets reporting on Arab Americans’ sympathy for victims of the terrorist attacks, as well as their concerns over the recriminations that have followed. In The New York Times, Laurie Goodstein and Gustav Niebuhr reported that people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent – or even those who appear to be – are increasingly becoming the targets of harassment and violence by civilians and of intense scrutiny by police officers attempting to track down terrorist suspects. They added that the incidents are increasing despite many interfaith prayer services and calls from President Bush and other officials for the public not to single out anyone because of religion, race or ethnic origin. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, Bob von Sternberg of the Star Tribune reported that even before suspects were identified in the terrorist attacks, Muslims in the Twin Cities and nationwide were bracing for the worst. He quoted a local Islamic organization imploring journalists not to fall prey to anti-Islamic stereotyping. At The Record in New Jersey, John Chadwick and Eman Varoqua described the sentiments of those in the Palestinian community in North New Jersey in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. They also conveyed the anxiety among the state’s Muslim community, which numbers about 250,000 to 300,000 and includes Arabs, Bengalis, Pakistanis and others. Jon Morgan of The Baltimore Sun reported that threatening calls began at the Washington headquarters of the Arab American Institute almost as soon as the planes slammed into the World Trade Center, with anonymous callers threatening retribution and commenting sarcastically on the attacks. Hanna Rosin of The Washington Post wrote that Arab Americans throughout the nation woke up to find bullet holes in their mosque windows, bricks with death threats attached, obscene graffiti and voice mail blaming them for the attacks. Rosin added that Muslim groups in the United States had received more than 100 reports of harassment against women in head scarves, men in Muslim dress or people who merely looked Middle Eastern. And threats persisted even as virtually every Muslim and Arab American group, including those that have resisted repudiating Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, lined up to condemn the attacks on the American targets. There were other related stories on the Arab American and other ethnic communities affected by all the fallout. Harriet Chiang, the San Francisco Chronicle’s legal affairs writer, reported how constitutional law scholars fear lawmakers may enact more intrusive policies in the name of national security and how others worry of racial profiling at airports – especially of Arab Americans – as part of the heightened security. Meanwhile, Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times described how cultures merged at local blood centers as ethnic and religious differences were set aside in the quest to give blood at Red Cross facilities. But much of the news was not one of unity but of misguided or misdirected or merely hateful rage. There was the attempted firebombing of a Texas Islamic society site, bullets shattering the window of another Islamic center, and blood splattered at the door of a San Francisco mosque. A New York man was accused of trying to run down a Pakistani woman, windows were broken at the Muslim Students Association at Michigan’s Wayne State University, and a Sikh who wears a turban for religious reasons told authorities in New Jersey he had garbage and stones thrown at his car. Despite those reports, some media watchdog groups feel that the ability of news organizations to publicize concerns of the Arab American community – early in the coverage – may have been instrumental in reducing the number of such incidents. “Mainly the coverage I have seen so far has been very good,” said Aki Soga, a business editor at the Burlington Free Press and chair of the Asian American Journalists Association Media Watch project. Soga added that the news media have been far more even-handed than they were during coverage of the Gulf War or after the Oklahoma City bombing. In addition to AAJA, which includes some Arab American members, the South Asian Journalists Association also has urged the media to be rigorous in maintaining fair and accurate reporting, especially in their coverage of Pakistanis and Americans from Pakistan, a country that has been tied to the suspected mastermind of the terrorist attacks, Osama Bin Laden. And SAJA has offered help on its Web site to assist in that coverage (www.saja.org). News organizations also have tools to help in the coverage of Arab Americans. The Detroit Free Press published a guide for journalists titled, “100 Questions and Answers About Arab Americans” that is available online (www.freep.com/jobspage/arabs.htm). In the meantime, with the investigation continuing, the focus has not faded from Arab Americans, particularly in communities like metropolitan Detroit. The concentration of 220,000 Arab Americans in that metro area is considered the highest in the United States, according to one survey, and only Los Angeles with nearly 300,000 has a larger Arab-American population overall. In a story this week on the Arab American community, the Detroit News reported that Arabs had first arrived in metro Detroit in large numbers in the 1920s, attracted by jobs in the auto industry. They own gas stations and grocery stores, work in the auto industry, are doctors and scientists, and also include a Chaldean population of Christian Arabs. Writers Janet Vandenabeele, Shawn D. Lewis and Jodi S. Cohen also described how German Americans and Japanese Americans can empathize with what Arab Americans are going through – experiencing the harassment and the questioning of their loyalties. For Arab Americans in nearby Dearborn, Mich., questions of their own linger. The anguish of the Sept. 11 events replaced what was expected to be a proud Election Day. For the first time, one of the favored candidates for mayor was an Arab American, said Niraj Warikoo of the Free Press, and he was wondering if that’s the story he would be writing that day. Instead, Warikoo found himself contributing to a totally different – and more devastating – story, as well as follow-up accounts of the plight of Arab Americans and other people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent nationwide. In Detroit, a coalition of black, Latino, Jewish, and Arab-American leaders gathered to urge Michiganders not to harass Arab Americans and Muslims. But it also was a week when Warikoo found himself chasing down rumors that were as troubling as they were inaccurate. In one case, word had spread that martial law had been declared in Dearborn because of its Arab population. City officials were getting calls from the national media and police agencies from other locales who were offering their help after hearing about the martial law report. “But it was all false,” Warikoo wrote in his next day’s story. “The city was calm.”
Victor Merina is a Freedom Forum fellow at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism. As a Poynter Institute fellow, he also writes for Poynter’s Web page, where this story originally appeared the week of the terrorist attacks.