In April, a University of California, Berkeley student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after talking to his uncle in Arabic on his cellphone, according to an April 20 NPR article.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old Iraq native, was not using his phone at an inappropriate time or violating Southwest or TSA regulations, but another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic, assumed he threatened the safety of other passengers and reported him to the airline, according to NPR.
Terrorism is a constant and serious fear, so it is understandable that the airline would want to investigate anything considered a threat. However, Southwest’s bizarre overreaction points to the larger issue of how acceptable xenophobia—the fear of foreigners—has become in the U.S.
The passenger who reported the incident claimed to speak Arabic and believed Makhzoomi’s conversation was threatening, according to NPR. Whether or not his concerns were justified or even valid, the swiftness with which Makhzoomi was taken off the plane and prevented from reboarding shows how seriously accusations against Arabic-speaking people are taken.
Southwest should not condone behavior that is clearly bigoted or assist in perpetuating malignant stereotypes of groups of people. However, its knee-jerk reaction shows how deeply ingrained xenophobia is in our nation, from anti-Communist propaganda of the 1950s to the fear of Islamic terrorists today.
In much the same way, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has shown how accepting Americans can be of blatantly racist ideas. Trump’s ridiculously xenophobic schemes, such as building a wall to create a physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico or banning Muslims from entering the country, have garnered support that is both frightening and confusing.
Trump’s supporters seem to be, above all else, scared of things they do not understand. They are scared of the unknown, and to deal with those fears, they have latched onto their candidate’s idea of pushing away people who are seemingly different and in some way threatening—Mexicans because they threaten an English-only way of life and Arabs because bigots cannot be bothered to differentiate them from the radical factions in the Middle East.
Scapegoating people and their cultures instead of becoming educated about them has devastating effects. The aggressors remain uneducated while the victims must combat misconceptions and stereotypes based on things they had nothing to do with.
Moreover, reality never interferes with the bigot’s stereotypes. For example, South Asians such as Sikhs have been assaulted and even killed because they were mistaken for Arabs.
On Sept. 15, 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, an Indian immigrant named Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed by a 44-year-old American man. It is believed the shooter had mistaken Sodhi for a Muslim because he was wearing a turban, according to a BBC News article from Oct. 1, 2003.
This stereotype of who a terrorist is contributes to why people do not see shootings in the U.S. done by white people as acts of terrorism or acts of violence equal to those carried out by terrorists.
There is also no empirical support for stigmatizing groups of people as necessary for any domestic defense strategy in the U.S. According to a Dec. 23, 2008, study from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, racially profiling people during security screenings is less effective and far more burdensome and expensive than taking a random sampling of people for security screenings.
Since 9/11, and even before, xenophobia has been an acceptable form of nationalism and pride in this country. Bigots have continued to buy into the idea that they have a superior claim to the U.S. over other groups of people that immigrate to this country. Building a wall and targeting minorities will not protect this country, and it will actively defeat any claim to greatness the nation can hope to have.