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Lashing out in LA
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 07 - 2002

The buzzword in the US is more security in the wake of the El Al shooting as Arab Americans brace themselves against racist retaliation, reports Negar Azimi from New York
Click to view caption
Amidst parades, fireworks and nationalist fanfare on this first independence day holiday since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, television screens around the country tuned into events rolling out at Los Angeles International Airport where the El Al airlines ticket counter was targeted in a shooting attack. There was early confusion as to the identity of the perpetrator but it did not take long before it was announced that the suspect was Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Ali Hadayet. He left two people dead and five injured before being fatally shot by a security guard.
The killings left an already jittery American populace increasingly on edge while bringing again to the fore concerns over national security, 10 months after the attacks on New York and Washington.
As of press time, the motive behind the seemingly isolated attack remained elusive, while investigators in both Los Angeles and Cairo continued to probe for clues as to what may have been running through the head of 41-year old Hadayet as he strolled into the busy international terminal wielding two handguns and a six-inch knife -- on his birthday, no less.
Killed in the attack were Yaakov Aminov, 46, an Israeli father of eight who ran a diamond import business in Los Angeles, and Victoria Hen, 25, who had been working behind the El Al ticket counter for only one month.
Hadayet, who immigrated to America from Egypt 10 years ago, ran a small limousine service in southern California. Though he did not hold American citizenship, he was registered as a resident alien. Despite records showing that he was nearly deported in 1996, he gained residency soon after through his wife. Initial reports indicate that Hadayet maintained no clear link to extremist factions while living in Egypt or America.
By nine o'clock on the evening of the attack, authorities had descended upon Hadayet's suburban Irvine apartment complex. Neighbours described the man as a devout Muslim who kept to himself. The front door of the family home reportedly sports a sticker extolling "Read the Qur'an". His wife, Hala, and two young sons had left California the week before to visit family in Cairo.
By the next morning, reports of the suspect's Egyptian nationality had emerged and the semantic games commenced. The FBI, the White House and even Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn tirelessly avoided prematurely branding the act terrorism and warned that the shooting may have been a hate crime or merely the isolated act of a deranged individual -- despite the Israeli authorities' insistence that it was terrorism, pure and simple.
"Given the background of the attacker and the pattern of past attacks, this is most likely a terrorist act," spokesperson for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles David Douek, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "If you define terrorism as attacking innocent civilians for political reasons, then you can call this a terrorist act," explained Douek.
Despite such strong allegations emanating from the Israeli camp, the American media has proven remarkably restrained in its treatment of the Los Angeles killings. It has largely followed the line of federal and state authorities and avoided the hysterics that the situation lends itself to in the post-11 September context.
In an interview with the Weekly, John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and director of the Centre for Muslim and Christian Understanding at Washington DC's Georgetown University, commented on the level of restraint exhibited in the immediate aftermath of the killings: "Obviously, I had been concerned that built-up momentum from 11 September and President Bush's war on terrorism would cause the media to jump to judgement but we haven't seen that at all here...this has been treated in a relatively low-key manner."
Nevertheless in Cairo, the official response was of baffled dismay at the US reaction. Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters that he was struck by the level of media focus on the killings.
"Until now, nobody knows the motives behind the incident. We have to await the outcome of the current investigation," he said.
Last week's attack in Los Angeles came 10 days after the delivery of an American policy statement on the Middle East that left the Arab world seething. In his speech, American President George W Bush called for the removal of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as a necessary step before substantive progress in the Middle East could take hold. The Washington Post concluded that "the speech represented a purposeful abandonment of neutrality by the [US] administration." Needless to say, response in the Arab press has been less diplomatic.
The Los Angeles Airport debacle occurred despite heightened security measures in major cities around the country. The newly minted White House Office of Homeland Security, a product of the post-11 September security shake-up, monitored over 2,000 independence day events throughout the country. Surveillance cameras, police dogs, as well as additional police and FBI personnel were deployed across the country. In New York alone, 4,000 police officers were distributed en masse across the city. Military jets roamed the skies in all major American cities.
But the authorities were not the only ones on guard as memories of 11 September were well and alive among Americans during the Fourth of July weekend. On the day of the Los Angeles shootings, addressing an audience in Ripley, West Virginia, President Bush cited the attacks on New York and Washington: "In a moment we discovered again that we are a single people -- when you strike one American, you strike us all."
Meanwhile, a poll in the 29 June issue of Newsweek revealed the extent to which Americans remain frightened of terrorism; 45 per cent of those polled said they believed that attacks against major cities or landmarks during the independence day holiday were somewhat likely while 12 per cent said they thought they would be very likely. Only a few days before the holiday, the US State Department reported it had "credible" information that terrorist attacks would prove imminent against American interests around the globe.
The response by Arab-American interest groups to the Los Angeles attack has been one of condemnation. The Washington DC-based Muslim Public Affairs Council swiftly issued a statement noting that they were "saddened and shocked upon hearing reports of the shooting", adding that the shooting was initiated by someone "who is unknown to the community and who reportedly has a troubled background". In a similar vein, the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC) condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms", deeming such "outrageous acts of violence completely unacceptable".
Many grew concerned about what the incident could signal for the status of America's three million Arabs -- particularly if Hadayet is linked to a terrorist network. Jean Abu Nader, managing director of the Washington DC-based Arab-American Institute, pondered what impact the incident could have on the Arab-American community in an interview with the Weekly: "There is paranoia in the air among Muslims and Arabs and a general erosion of trust in Arab- Americans."
Some foresee that the 4 July shooting incident will have far-ranging ramifications. Ibrahim Mousa, professor of Religious Studies and co- director of the Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University, told the Weekly: "The event in Los Angeles will just make life harder for Muslims and Arabs in the US. I imagine they will come under closer, more intense surveillance."
Indeed, national security has reclaimed the number one spot in national debate in the aftermath of the airport shooting. A brand new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be charged with revolutionising the current state of security and, presumably, filling holes where existing measures have failed. Unlike trademark acts of terrorism, the Los Angeles shooting was perpetrated by a resident rather than an outsider.
Says Mousa, "This may be the beginning of a disturbing pattern of the US government being targeted by its own."


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