When Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump spews his openly bigoted, anti-Muslim nonsense, it makes great headlines, drums up support from the most racist elements of his base and gives newsrooms something to lead with. As he rises in the polls and raises funds, and as T.V. ratings increase, newspapers sell and sites get more clicks, real-life consequences happen.
The FBI recently released its annual Hate Crime Statistics Report and according to those figures the number of hate crimes overall fell in 2014 from the previous year -- except when it came to the Muslim community. Anti-Muslim incidents rose and one can only imagine what the final results for 2015 will be. Since the tragic Paris attacks, there is yet again an increase in Muslim backlash; everything from attacks on women wearing hijabs to gunshots at a family's home, to vandalism, threats and even armed gunman protesting outside mosques. But in addition to these horrendous acts, what doesn't get any attention at all is the many ways in which both the overt and subliminal messaging of anti-Muslim rhetoric has seeped into the American psyche and created ingrained biases that can be just as dangerous as hate crimes -- and yes, even deadly.
In 2005, my father was exiting a grocery store in the small, conservative suburb of Bordentown, New Jersey when he was hit by a car. He flew back several feet and when he hit the ground, he sustained massive head trauma, hemorrhaging and started losing his ability to speak. As he lay there struggling, suffering from internal bleeding and holding on for dear life, he tried to communicate but was having difficulties according to witnesses I found on my own. When the police and EMTs arrived on the scene, instead of thinking that some of his neurological functions may have been impacted by the force of the head injury, they assumed my father could not speak English. They put a "language barrier" in their report -- though he had been in this country since before I was born. He was sent to a non-trauma hospital despite the fact that a trauma center was virtually the same distance away. He didn't get transferred to a trauma facility until five hours later; by that time he fell into a coma, and he died three days later.
I was the first one to arrive at the non-trauma medical facility and I watched as he lay there coughing and throwing up blood from his internal injuries, and I basically heard his last words as he asked me "what happened?", and I asked if he was in pain. Even uttering those few words were difficult for him and it took several attempts. After that moment, he stared into my eyes for about 30 seconds without speaking, almost to silently convey "take care of the family." He then closed his eyes and would never open them again. When he was finally transferred to a trauma hospital I followed the ambulance the entire way as my mother sat with the EMTs; neither one of us would be able to communicate with him again.
As my family and I dealt with the immense sudden loss of a loved one, it became apparent just how much disregard was given to my father's life and well-being. The Bordentown Township police department would not return phone calls as we searched for clarity as to what exactly happened. My uncle and I found witnesses on our own who told us that cops refused their statements and failed to include them in their report even though they were willing to go on the record.
The final police report in fact only included one witness, and we later discovered that the driver was never even checked for drugs or alcohol. One officer openly admitted to me that he knew the driver, and several weeks later we learned that the incident was never even reported to the DMV.
The police went to this driver's home and allowed her to write a hand-written statement of her version of what happened as they continued to not return our phone calls. The Chief-of-Police (who also never called the family) made statements in a local paper stating that it was just "an unfortunate accident" and speculated that the driver couldn't have been going more than five miles per hour -- even though the witnesses we found painted a very different picture.
I had the county re-open the case, tried contacting the attorney general, various organizations, news outlets and anything I could think of. A reporter from NBC Philadelphia did come to one of our court hearings and literally had tears in her eyes as she told my mother and I that they treated us like we were the criminals and not the victims in that courtroom. Unfortunately, her piece never aired.
Throughout the entire ordeal, it was clear that the authorities thought they could just sweep this under the rug, and had no regard for my father's welfare and instead treated him as some sort of an inconvenience on that fateful March day 10 years ago. I attempted to get justice for him any way I could think of, but sadly, I was limited in what I could do. In the end, the individual who killed him got a careless driving ticket (which was dated almost a month from the incident) and paid $200 some dollars in court; meanwhile my siblings and I lost our father forever. Though we later pursued a civil suit, it dragged on for so many years that my mother eventually settled for a woefully unjust amount, but not before she lost her house.
I wrote about my dad's death in the context of the immigration debate several years ago, but felt compelled to do so again because the issues are connected: the juxtaposing of certain groups as "other." Could we prove in a court of law that the police and EMTs had ingrained biases against Muslims? Could we prove that they just looked at his name/ID and thought "oh who cares, he's probably a terrorist," let's just send him wherever? Could we prove that there was such negligence and shoddy police work on this case because they really didn't care what happened to this "immigrant"? Of course not. But during the Bush era of "us vs. them," was the climate anti-Muslim? Absolutely. When daily messages of Muslims as terrorists inundated the news cycle, and in pop culture, the probability that such sentiments soaked into the minds of many Americans is almost certain.
Today, when anti-Muslim rhetoric is so vile and so unbelievably outrageous from so-called candidates like Trump, what kind of environment are we creating? He may be playing on people's fears, anger -- and yes, ignorance -- but his political game is creating a society where Islam and Muslims are increasingly viewed negatively and where a backlash against them or an indifference for their well-being is deemed acceptable in the mainstream. The following is from a recent Washington Post article:
"A majority of Americans (56%) say the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life -- an uptick in recent years... And in the absence of people they know -- and perhaps like -- who are Muslim, Americans' perceptions of what it means to be one could remain negative for as long as the headlines are."
For people like Trump, it may just be savvy politics, but for a religious minority (and those perceived as Muslim), he is creating an extremely toxic atmosphere. The FBI's own stats show a rise in Muslim hate crimes, and everyone knows that those figures are under-reported. But what is impossible to track are the implicit, deep-seated preconceptions that a person may possess -- and those can have just as deadly results as was the case a decade ago when my father's trip to the grocery store turned into an unimaginable tragedy.
Words, after all, have very real consequences.