Hate Crime Punished
On Friday, July 11, 2008, a resident of Arlington, Virginia, was sentenced to two concurrent one year prison terms for threatening my life and using hate-filled threats to violate my civil rights and those of my staff at the Arab American Institute. Upon release, he will be under supervised probation for three more years and be required both to perform community service and undergo psychiatric counseling.
A simple enough story, on the surface. But there are a number of back stories here that need to be told.
While the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not been well-led during the past eight years, the career attorneys in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI agents who work with them investigating rights violations deserve significant credit for tracking down and prosecuting hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims.
Arab Americans, myself included, have been subjected to threats and violence for decades, now. But never before have the agencies of the U.S. government been so committed to hunting down these criminals and punishing them. Since 2001, in all, the Civil Rights Division has convicted 166 such criminals. I know of their work, first-hand, since three of these cases involved individuals who threatened me.
While credit is due to the above-mentioned law enforcement officials, serious questions must be raised about the behavior of the U.S. State Department (DOS) in this affair. The person who was sentenced last week was a 25-year career foreign service officer at DOS who had twice been stationed in Lebanon.
His two phone calls and four email messages to my office were so obscene and so violent that I cannot reprint them in full. Sent to me, and some members of my staff, in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese war of 2006, he said, in part, “The only good Lebanese is a dead Lebanese. The only good Arab is a dead Arab;” called me and my staff “wicked and evil”, said that “we should burn in the fires of hell for all eternity” and that the “U.S. would be safer without” us. There was worse. Much worse.
The messages were frightening, and of concern. Even more disturbing was when I was informed by the investigating law enforcement officers that the perpetrator worked at the State Department. More troubling still was the fact that after DOS officials were notified of his behavior, they did nothing and allowed the individual to remain at his job for another nine months until he was able to retire with full pension.
Perhaps worst of all was the fact, revealed in court, that the convicted foreign service officer had engaged in other anti-Arab behavior earlier in his career, and that nothing was done by the DOS to censure or stop him. That the Department did nothing to correct this bigoted and criminal behavior is unacceptable, for many reasons – not least of which is that it compromises the work of so many fine career foreign service officers, dedicated public servants who both serve America well and respect the people of the Arab world.
Finally, a word about hate crimes. There are some who argue that obscene, hateful and threatening language should not be punished, since to do so would be a violation of free speech. (This, in fact, was the initial defense raised by the individual in this case, before he ultimately pled guilty to the charges against him.)
They are wrong. Such behavior is a crime, and individuals who commit these crimes do so precisely because they seek to violate the free speech of others. And though their targets are individuals, the intended victims are entire communities who the hate criminals seek to intimidate into silence.
Hate crimes are an extension of bigotry and political exclusion. Blacks, Jews, gays, and others have been repeatedly targeted by these crimes, and so, too, have Arab Americans and American Muslims. There were those who discriminated against and defamed Arab Americans (as terrorist supporters), and pressed political leaders to exclude Arab Americans from the mainstream – all of this contributing to the climate that would incite some to threaten or commit acts of violence.
My friend Alex Odeh, California Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was murdered in 1985. He had been threatened on a number of occasions by phone and by mail. I personally brought Alex’s complaints to the FBI. Tragically, at the time, they did not respond. And to this day, no one has been indicted for Alex’s murder.
Over the past 38 years, I have, on many occasions, been a target. I have been threatened, attacked, and – at one point – my office was firebombed. And for most of this time, law enforcement did little to intervene. Thankfully, this has changed. While the number of these threats and acts of violence may have increased since September 11, 2001, because of the work of the Civil Rights unit at DOJ, and FBI agents working on hate crimes, the number of convictions has gone up even more.
The vigorous work of law enforcement and, in particular, the sentence meted out in this case, sends a clear message that these crimes will not be tolerated. For that I and my staff, and my community, are thankful.
By James Zogby