By Barbara Slavin
Among many disturbing crimes in recent weeks, the shooting death of an Indian émigré engineer near Kansas City on February 22 stands out as a warning about rising xenophobia in the United States
Adam Purinton, 51, of Olathe, Kansas, who has been charged with the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, apparently took him and another engineer, Alok Madasani, who was wounded, for Iranians.
Why Purinton – who reportedly yelled “go back to your country” before opening fire on the two men in a bar – would want to attack Iranians isn’t clear. But the Trump administration has harshly criticized Iran; recently departed national security adviser Michael Flynn sternly put Tehran “on notice” following an Iranian ballistic missile test.
Add to this the travel ban the Trump administration tried to impose on citizens of Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries and the accelerated arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants from Latin America and you have a climate in which the angry and unhinged might find justification for vigilantism against people who look “foreign.”
While White House spokesman Sean Spicer has condemned the Kansas shooting, President Trump has said nothing about it until Tuesday’s address to a joint session of Congress. There has been no praise for a young American, Ian Grillot, who tried to stop Purinton and was shot and seriously wounded by him.
Trump, who has repeatedly commented on terrorism perpetrated by Muslims in Europe — including an incident that never took place in Sweden — has also not said anything about an attack on a mosque in Canada in which six men were killed as they prayed.
Trump and his spokesmen have indignantly denied that he has any responsibility for these crimes. But his failure to speak out against them, and his belated response to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and an epidemic of threats against Jewish schools and community centers, could be giving comfort to violent bigots and are terrifying many American citizens and immigrants.
The National Iranian American Council, reacting to the reports that the Kansas shooter thought he was targeting Iranians, called “the growing levels of hatred and violence towards minorities in our country … deeply disturbing. Americans are facing a homegrown threat to the safety of our families and to our country’s most fundamental values.”
The United States has gone through periods of xenophobia before, in the 1920s following a wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81 and more recently after the September 11, 2001 attacks by Arabs belonging to al Qaeda.
In the past, however, both Republican and Democratic administrations have strongly condemned retaliation against ethnic minorities and inveighed against religious prejudice. President George W. Bush, after 9-11, went out of his way to describe Islam as a religion of peace.
Trump, in contrast, has appointed individuals to his administration such as Stephen Bannon, who authored a movie script with an anti-Islamic bent, and continues to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to refer to groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State against the advice of counter-terrorism experts including the new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. HR McMaster.
The president, who campaigned on a slogan of “putting America first,” has vowed to spend billions of dollars on building a new border wall with Mexico and on new weapons for the U.S. military while slashing spending for foreign aid and U.S. diplomacy. These steps will not make the United States safer or more prosperous without a commitment to racial and ethnic tolerance at home.
Already, many talented individuals from countries such as India as well as the Middle East are reportedly reconsidering plans to study or work in the United States. With expertise in hi-tech fields and in professions such as medicine, these people will be hard to replace with native-born Americans.
Numerous studies have also shown that immigrants are more entrepreneurial than most Americans, are willing to live in under-served communities in the heartland and make other contributions to the general welfare of society out of proportion to their numbers. If they feel increasingly unwelcome in the United States, they will take their money, talent and work ethic to other countries, such as Canada.
If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds of xenophobia that have been spreading over the United States, it is the increasing willingness of minority groups to work together against hatred and discrimination.
In recent weeks, American Muslims have raised money for the repair of Jewish cemeteries and American Jews have come together in solidarity with Muslims. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have experienced record donations.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking Monday before the annual conference of the progressive Jewish group, J-Street, noted that she had been raised a Catholic, became an Episcopalian, found out in later life that she was Jewish and would register as a Muslim if the Trump administration ever tried to single out members of that faith.
“I find what is going on now deeply, deeply troubling,” said Albright, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia and emigrated twice — to England as a wartime refugee and to the United States in 1948. “There is a lack of recognition of the strength of diversity of this country and the real way people want to contribute and want to become Americans,” Albright said.