Posted on December 6, 2004

Inventing Victimhood

Heather Mac Donald, National Review Online, December 1, 2004

The real victims of 9/11 are forever and tragically silent, but the faux victims just keep getting louder and louder. A recently screened documentary on “anti-Muslim backlash” after 9/11 is one of the shriller expressions of faux suffering. Purportedly exposing the injustice that has engulfed American Muslims since the attacks, the film instead highlights the solipsism of America’s victim culture.

Brothers and Others, directed by Nicolas Rossier, is a hit on the international left. The 1st International Film Festival on Human Rights in Geneva featured the documentary last year, as did the United Nations Association Film Festival, among other venues. It is available on such Arab-oriented websites as And just six days before the recent presidential election, New York’s Asia Society offered both the documentary and a panel discussion about it, despite having already shown the film last year.

The message of Brothers and Others is simple: After the al Qaeda strikes, the United States embarked on a “war on Islam.” That war is not much different from the attacks themselves: “By jailing thousands of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians without evidence or due process, is America perpetuating the cycle of hate and ignorance which claimed so many innocent lives [on September 11th]?” asks The film’s resounding answer: Yes!

So who are the victims of this “heightened climate of suspicion” that Swiss-born director Rossier offers his viewers? Well, there’s Ali, a young man in the computer business whom the FBI interviewed after 9/11 on the basis of a tip. Like all of the men featured in the film, we don’t learn why the FBI was interested in Ali. Ali does acknowledge, however, eclectic web-surfing habits. Does he frequent jihadist websites? Rossier doesn’t bother to ask.

Four months after the Bureau interview, Ali lost his job—a common occurrence in the computer industry, all the more so in the post-9/11 downturn. We are to suspect, however, that his employer retaliated against him for the FBI’s brief interest, even though Brothers and Others provides nothing to back up that innuendo.

The FBI quickly cleared Ali, and he has not heard from them again. That’s it. End of story. But on the basis of such minimal government action, Ali dons full victim status. “I don’t have any rights,” he whines, though nothing the government did to him came even close to infringing on his civil liberties (since it may ask an individual for a non-custodial interview without crossing any constitutional tripwires). Ali also claims that he has been censored, and the filmmaker obligingly poses him skimming a book about censorship.

If being interviewed by the FBI makes one a victim of an anti-Muslim witch hunt, the implication is clear: The government should have just waited patiently after 9/11 until the next group of Islamic terrorists graciously turned themselves in. Any preemptive investigations that the government may launch are per se racist if they touch on Muslims, according to the film’s critique. Given the fact that Osama bin Laden has yet to invite Jews or Christians to join his jihad against America, however, it is unavoidable that an investigation of Islamic terrorism will have Muslims for its subject.

The film moves on to its next “victim”: an Egyptian grocer in Brooklyn who lost some business after 9/11. The grocer blames the media: “The TV says bad stuff about Muslims.” Yet according to the film’s footage, the grocer operates in a Muslim neighborhood. So is he being discriminated against by his fellow Muslims? Brothers and Others doesn’t say.

Nearly every New York establishment lost revenues after 9/11, when hundreds of thousands of jobs disappeared. But true to the ethic of victim solipsism, the grocer personalizes his difficulties as a concerted attack on him. During the panel discussion following the recent Asia Society screening (in which I participated), I suggested that it was far-fetched to compare a post-9/11 loss of business to the loss of life on the day itself. But the audience, in full-throated America-bashing mode, would have none of such a Muslim-insensitive perspective. “How can you say they are not equal casualties?” an audience member shot back.


Brothers and Others’ two final victims are illegal aliens who were detained on immigration charges while being investigated for possible terrorism links. Ali, a middle-aged Iranian, had been living illegally in the country for years. He was held after 9/11 for five months, and spent two weeks in isolation. After release, he applied for asylum—freely availing himself, if belatedly, of the many rights accorded to aliens, including illegal ones. Ali is toying with the idea of changing his name to “Tony” to avoid the hatred we are supposed to imagine him suffering. This contemplated name-change is presented as yet another indignity visited upon Muslims by a callous country.

The final victim is an illegal Pakistani variety-store owner who is being deported for immigration violations after five months’ detention. His wife and children will follow him to Pakistan. “I’m scared of Pakistan,” the wife says, apparently forgetting the script of “America Bad; Rest of World, Good.” “Life is bad there,” she adds.

As usual, the film gives us no information as to why the government was interested in the Pakistani proprietor. It came out during the Asia Society panel discussion, however, that he possessed a license to transport hazardous materials—certainly not evidence of terror affiliations in itself, but possibly a piece of a larger puzzle that would have warranted further investigation.

The Iranian Ali and the Pakistani store owner can qualify as targets of racist government power only if one posits that immigration enforcement is per se racist. And that isexactly what the film posits. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group, tells the camera: “It is wrong to arrest people for visa violations; it violates the Constitution.”

The only thing remarkable about this statement is its clarity; the sentiment, however, animates most attacks on the government’s post-9/11 terrorism investigations. Behind much criticism of the domestic war on terror lies the unstated premise that the government has no right to enforce immigration laws, and that any effort to do so is discriminatory.

The discussion following the recent New York screening of Brothers and Others reiterated the notion that the Bush administration conducted a massive dragnet of Muslims after 9/11, based on racial animus. The dragnet idea is a cherished belief on the left that has nothing to do with the facts.

The facts are these: After 9/11, the Justice Department ordered that 762 illegal aliens, nearly all Muslim, be detained, while FBI agents ran down leads about their possible terror involvement. Those detentions amount to .01 percent of the Muslim population, taking the Council on American-Islamic Relations at its word that there are seven million Muslims in America. A hundredth of a percentage point of a population is hardly an indiscriminate sweep. What’s more, those 762 incarcerations were only a small fraction of the thousands of tips that poured into the FBI after 9/11.

The illegal-alien detainees were held an average of 80 days—undoubtedly causing enormous hardship to them and their families. But the reason for that delay was unimpeachable: The administration wanted to be certain that it was not releasing terrorists back into the populace. And so it put into effect several bureaucratic checks that increased the clearance time, including requiring both the CIA and the Justice Department headquarters to sign off on each release. Given the massive intelligence failure leading up to 9/11, such caution was more than warranted, despite its unfortunate consequences for the detainees.

Victim solipsism, however, demands that any broader considerations of the public good be ruthlessly suppressed while only the plight of the individual victim be held up for painstaking scrutiny. In truth, being detained for immigration violations and possible terror links, however personally disruptive, pales in comparison to jumping out of the 97th floor of an inferno. Being a self-professed victim in America, however, means never having to acknowledge greater evils than one’s own plight.

The blinkered thinking behind Brothers and Others continues unabated. On November 6, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Muslims Still Feel Pain” at being voluntarily interviewed by the FBI. The Bureau has contacted dozens of Muslims in southern California to seek information about possible terror attacks tied to the election and inauguration. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the ACLU, and the National Lawyers Guild have denounced the effort as a biased effort to chill free speech.

In another incident earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security asked the Census Department to present it with publicly available data (information easily found on the internet) about residential-living patterns of various Arab nationalities, to better target outreach. The data were presented only in the aggregate, not by individual names or addresses. Arab and Muslim advocates went nuts at this “targeting” of minorities, and their new line—propounded by the ACLU and other sympathetic groups—is that the transfer of publicly available information is tantamount to the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII. In response, the government backed off completely, and has since put up all sorts of cumbersome bureaucratic roadblocks to inter-agency sharing of public census information.

It would be nice if an Arab advocacy or civil-rights group called for cooperation with the government, and announced that, in the larger scheme of possible harms, a voluntary interview is not such a big deal. But such a reasonable viewpoint would violate the code of America’s victim culture. The advocates who shape that culture must be secretly celebrating a second Bush administration; expect four more years of unbroken testaments to American racism. Indeed, Rossier himself is preparing a new documentary on Guantanamo Bay.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.