It’s eight weeks before the presidential election and a popcorn truck near the Capitol Building in Washington DC is offering its own tongue-in-cheek estimation of the two contenders. The Obama Mix tumbles caramel popcorn with ‘Congressional cheddar’ and the Romney is a mix of maple glaze popcorn and ‘White House cheese’. It is a bit of fun in a serious contest that is perceptibly darkened by the shadow of post-9/11 America’s psychological traumas.
Eleven years after 9/11, new research in Psychological Science seeks to pinpoint its exact toll — 2,977 dead in New York, Was-hington DC and Pennsylvania and a further 1,595 who perished in car accidents over the next 365 days. The road casualties were the result of Americans’ post-9/11 avoidance of air travel. Travelling long distances by car is more dangerous than by plane, yet an inchoate fear induced Americans to take the risk, concludes Gerd Gigerenzer, the German professor who published the data in the journal.
But the new reckoning is as inexact as the old. It doesn’t take into account the terrible toll on America’s psyche with its swelling tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. It doesn’t record the collateral damage. For instance, the six Sikhs shot dead recently by a former US Army specialist in a gurdwara in Wisconsin. Many believe that the gunman mistook the Sikhs for Muslims. Then there was the Sikh gas station attendant in Arizona who was the first victim of reprisals after the September 2001 attacks, again in the mistaken belief his turban made him a Muslim jihadist.
So is 9/11’s real toll 4,572 plus six plus one? It is far greater and ultimately incalculable. Except for one clear measure — the surge in anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. This is especially evident in the ongoing presidential election campaign. Consider the contours of today’s political map. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s nominee for president, is courting well-known Islamophobes, some of whom are rich and influential, the rest merely influential. Sheldon Adelson, eighth richest American, belongs to the first category. As does prominent Zionist and Florida businessman Irving Moskowitz.
Gary Bauer, James Dobson and retired Lt Gen Jerry Boykin, whom Romney reportedly met at a private dinner recently, are influential figures on the Christian right. Bauer, a former Reagan staffer and Republican presidential candidate, is known for his outspoken views on ‘Islamic culture’, which he has publicly described as keeping “hundreds of millions of people on the verge of violence and mayhem 24 hours a day.” Dobson has often spoken of the “Muslim threat” to America and the need to “recognise we’re in a war.” Boykin argues that Islam “should not be protected under the First Amendment” and “there should be no mosques in America.”
The presidential challenger’s bid to motivate fearful voters comes from a bigoted need to appeal to something that is not demonstrably part of Romney. It is being seen as the Republican Party’s “new Southern strategy”. This is a reference to the Party’s traditional tactic of appealing to the racist worst instincts of white Southern voters. It is generally seen as successful but anti-Muslim racism helps position the challenger as ‘tough on terror’. This is part of the reason that Romney was careful not to condemn Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s McCarthyist campaign alleging Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the US government with insidious poisonous references to Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide, Pakistani-American Huma Abedin.
Nor does it seem to be much a part of anyone else’s though the recent Democratic Party convention appeared to rejoice in its manifest diversity. But to use the American idiom, it figures, as Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire explains. She says that 9/11 made the discourse about ‘Muslim terrorism’ so dominant “and Muslims have been so thoroughly vilified, that no savvy politician is going to come to the defence of Muslims”.
Since 2010, nearly half of America’s 50 states have proposed or passed anti-sharia legislation, which seeks to tackle the mythical, deeply feared threat that Islamic law will overtake the American way of life; Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 50% in 2010; Barack Obama’s Democratic Party remains a quiescent bystander even as the verbal and physical pummelling of Muslims continues apace and a recent Pew poll found that 47% of Americans agree that “Islam is at odds with American values”.
So, the antipathy to Obama because of his perceived Muslim faith extends to Islam in general in the US. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Osama bin Laden’s original objective for 9/11 of triggering a clash of civilisations may be well on its way to being achieved.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the US
The views expressed by the author are personal