An entire group was stereotyped and stigmatized based on the lethal outcome of behaviors practiced by a few. For a period of several years many in the general public entertained a strong suspicion that AIDS could be contracted merely by shaking hands with a gay person. Time and education-good science, good journalism, and good theatre-helped change that, replacing myth and stereotype with facts, putting a human face on a scourge that we (now) know is only partly sexually transmitted, and in ways by no means limited to gays.
If you are a Muslim in America today, this type of blanket stereotyping will be terribly familiar. In place of AIDS, the killer is terrorist bombings. In place of mainstream fear that all gays are carriers of a lethal threat to human life, we have the categorical suspicion of Arabs, Muslims, and people from groups confused with them. (Among the first innocent people to die in public retaliations against the 9/11 attacks was a Sikh-mistaken for a Muslim, because he wore a turban.) How many years must pass, how much education must take place, before a society understands that people of all types, colors, and beliefs may harbor a fatal virus or turn to terrorism? How long will it take to sink in, that over the last 10 years we have had Irish, German, Serbian, Israeli, Basque, Italian, Colombian and American terrorists (remember Tim McVeigh)? Yet the only group the label sticks to is Muslims.
There is another lamentable analogy between AIDS and terrorism, and that is the fatal slowness with which governments have risen to challenge wrongheaded characterizations of both afflictions. One of the great tragedies in the history of AIDS occurred in the last few years in South Africa, where encouraged by the elected regime of Thabo Mbeke people stood by for years mouthing platitudes and blind denials, while HIV ran rampant through the population. As a result, in some sectors of that country more than 25% of the people are now HIV-positive and in some parts of Botswana the figure is nearer 50%. By refusing to acknowledge the problem, by ignoring the link between behavior and disease and by misrepresenting its true nature, millions will die.
Misrepresenting the true nature of terrorism can be fatal too, not only to people but also to the societies we live in. Linking it to a particular religion, whether Irish Catholicism or English Protestantism, Shia or Sunni Islam, misses the point-that any religion may be invoked to underwrite it. The association of Islam with terrorism plays directly into the hands of the perpetrators, who would have us believe that their actions are sanctioned by a faith. Muslims by the millions also need to denounce this false association, stepping decisively away from any excuse for violent reprisals against innocent people.
By a like token, American law makers and everyday citizens need to denounce the selective rescinding of normal civil rights that lies at the heart of post-9/11 federal laws like the Patriot Act. In addition to disrupting the lives of innocent people held without evidence, trial or legal representation for long periods, the Patriot Act inflicts lasting damage to the Bill of Rights. The usual guarantees of brief incarceration, swift trial, and adequate counsel have been weakened in the last two years as surely as any body weakened by a virus.
Anyone who regards these threats as superficial should think again. Characterized from a medical point of view, they are like a frightened patient cutting away his own vital organs in a vain attempt to protect them from infection. The old phrase "cutting off your nose to spite your face" comes to mind. Sacrificing our civil rights in order to "protect" it is no cure at all.
Real cures to terrorism remain elusive and complex. As with AIDS and HIV, an ounce of prevention and honest education may be a good place to start. American journalists and educators need to teach our citizens more about Islam and the basic human values their Muslim neighbors share with them. Millions of Americans need to be relieved of the knee-jerk associations they often make between everyday Muslims and a tiny fragment of anarchic bombers who preach that God approves of wholesale violence. As with AIDS, this must become a national project for it to work. In contrast to South Africa, nations like Uganda, by sponsoring wide-spread sex education programs, have reduced panic, saved lives, and preserved human dignity. We need an education in terrorism, too.