In 2010, an American named Farooque Ahmed prepared to carry out a terrorist attack on the Washington, D.C., subway system. For months, he sketched diagrams of Metro stops like Arlington Cemetery and relayed them to men he believed to be al Qaeda operatives, suggesting where to place explosives to maximize the death count. But his conspirators were actually undercover agents. The FBI had received a tip from a Muslim Ahmed knew through his mosque.
The story illustrates what might have happened in Charleston, SC, my hometown, if bystanders to Dylann Roof's reported bouts of bigotry had chosen vigilance over silence. Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in historic Emanuel AME Church, openly espoused racist extremism. Joseph Meek, a childhood friend, told the New York Times that Roof said "races should be segregated, that whites should be with whites" and that he was "planning on doing something crazy." This time, however, no one tipped off the authorities. Even after Roof told a friend he wanted to "hurt a whole bunch of people," no one took action.
Though Americans suspicious of or hostile to Islam may find it hard to believe, Muslims have played a vital role in keeping the U.S. safe. Many Islamic Americans have chosen to battle extremists in their communities by diligently reporting threats and addressing hateful speech. Their tips have helped prevent one out of every three al-Qaeda attacks since 9/11, according to a report by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The New America Foundation, working in partnership with Syracuse's Maxwell School of Public Policy, lists over 40 instances in which Muslims have willfully shared information to stop terrorist activity.
In America, Muslims are often mischaracterized as proponents of violence, even by liberals like HBO host Bill Maher, but evidence suggests they actually prevent it. Ahmed reportedly wasn't able to inflict harm because a Muslim in his community told police he was trying to join a terrorist group. Examples like this abound. After an imam contacted police upon witnessing Muslims handing out extremist propaganda in 2013, authorities were able to prevent a plot to derail a passenger train travelling between Toronto and New York.
The Charleston shooting exemplifies why we can't choose silence in the face of hate. Racial enmity can't be ignored, even when it emanates from friends. "There's a quiet bigotry that still exists," State Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Monday when debating the bill to remove the Confederate flag from SC's state house grounds, "and if those of us who are white don't say anything... then we're part of the problem."
White Americans, like myself, ought to be especially vigilant about reporting threats and combating racists before their anger compels them to act. After all, Muslims aren't the biggest terror threat in the United States. We are. There have been 26 terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, according to a study by the New America Foundation. Nineteen were carried out by white Americans: either anti-government radicals or, like Roof, white supremacists. The New York Times recently published a report with similar findings.
This isn't to paint Muslims as America's protectors and Caucasians as enablers of injustice. For one thing, Muslims can of course be white. Rather, my point is that communities, regardless of race or religion, should respond to racism with vigilance, not torpor. Too many let racist views go unopposed, allowing extremists to view racism as not only an acceptable belief, but one worth killing for. "He made a lot of racist jokes," another of Roof's friends told the Daily Beast, "but you don't really take them seriously like that."
The New Yorker recently wrote about Craig Hicks, a North Carolina man facing the death penalty for killing three American Muslims in February. The victim's families believe they were targeted because of their faith. Hicks often made racially caustic remarks on social media, including his wish "that Jews, Christians, and Muslims might 'exterminate' each other," according to the New Yorker. Musings like this need to be addressed, not avoided.
When I moved to Charleston as a teenager in 1997, I was told that racism wasn't racism, but rather an expression of "Southern pride." In high school, some used the n-word as often as characters in "To Kill a Mockingbird." "We're not racists," they would say. "We're Southerners." Objections were dismissed with arguments about liberty and heritage. "You can't take our words!" seemed to me the outgrowth of "You can't take our slaves!" Today, the rhetoric's shifted but the sentiment's remained: though many have expressed an opposing view, some still proclaim, "You can't take our flag!"
I began hearing racist tirades routinely after I joined President Obama's 2008 campaign as an intern in Columbia, SC. Here, voter outreach was a daily exercise in restraint. A miasma of hate polluted conversations with negativity, creating an environment where smears became accepted as truths. I voiced umbrage over the situation in my first-ever political article, a piece in Charleston's alt weekly.
Raised in upstate South Carolina, Roof likely experienced a similar environment, where casual racism was as common as collards and, until recently, about as controversial. In my adopted home state, old prejudices have become a modern means of dehumanization, and passive acceptance of that dynamic has contributed to a culture where violence can spring forth like a weed. Off-hand, half-joking threats of violence, like Hicks' talk of extermination, are so common they're rarely taken seriously, even when they should be.
Just as Muslims have policed hatred within their ranks, so must we. Whether notifying the police or simply responding to an ignorant view on Facebook, intervention's most effective when it comes from someone in the troubled individual's community. Bad things happen when good people stay silent.
Few places are as beautiful as sweet Carolina. But as Shakespeare taught me as a Charleston youth, "the sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds." Too many of us have become unwilling to confront those using the language of oppression. Too many click "unfriend" instead of comment. Too many dismiss prejudice instead of defending against it. Too many have become meek.
Speaking out against a member of your community is difficult, but Ahmed's thwarted plot illustrates its importance. In South Carolina or any other state, communities can help prevent hate crimes by acting as everyday safeguards against bigotry. We may not be able to enact gun control, but we can at least avoid slipping back into comfortable silence.