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VICTIMS OF TERRORISM

This is a tense time for Arab-Americans. They share physical characteristics with the face of terrorism unmasked in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. And because of that, some people blinded by the need for revenge, or outright bigotry, have targeted innocent Arab-Americans.

It's not who shares characteristics of the face that counts. It's who shares the heart of evil. Those who target Arab-Americans, in anger gone senseless, become terrorists themselves.

It was heartening to hear the multitudes in Niagara Square for Sunday's candlelight vigil cheer a local Muslim cleric, Imam Fajri Ansari, when he proclaimed Western New York's Muslim community as being as sickened and saddened by the attacks as anyone. It was saddening to note a scrawled "Death to Islam" on a campaign sign elsewhere in Buffalo. And it was profoundly disturbing to learn of the killings of an immigrant businessman from India in Arizona and a Pakistani deli owner in Dallas, both apparently retaliatory hate crimes.

The investigation of this month's terrorist attacks inevitably will center on immigrants from the Arab world, and heightened security measures likely will involve some ethnic profiling. Perhaps there is no way around that, given the origins of the 19 known hijackers and the emerging links to Arab terrorist groups. But America long has prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, and ethnicity itself is no proof of either guilt, involvement or even support.

What happened in Manhattan and the Virginia suburbs of Washington this month was a perversion of Islam. The word "Islam" means peace. The Koran forbids suicide, and only the most politically militant Muslim clerics hold that the "martyrdom" practiced by terrorists, involving the taking of innocent lives, is a pathway to eternal bliss. Besides, what kind of "holy warrior" spends his final hours in Florida bars buying booze and lap dances?

Anger over these attacks has been given voice, repeatedly, in recent days. The letters from readers published over the past few days in this newspaper, for example, reflect the universal condemnation of the terrorism. In keeping with the principles of the forum traditionally provided by Everybody's Column, they portray a cross section of community opinion -- opinions that have ranged from blaming America for fostering anti-American hatred overseas to calling for a nuclear strike on Afghanistan.

A spectrum of opinion always has been a hallmark of America. Collectively, we meld those opinions into a course of action. That action may well involve an attack on Afghanistan, justifiable under international law that gives America a right to self-defense. But it's worth remembering that the Taliban's first victims have been the Afghans it rules, in a drought-ridden and oppressed country already close to the Stone Age. Moreover, we need to remember that tragedies that can bring out the best in us also can bring out the worst, if we let them.

That's especially true close to home. Those who would terrorize Arab-Americans, simply because they share a heritage with those who have turned to atrocities, seek an unjust, unfair and mindless revenge against those who may be within reach, but don't deserve either wrath or retribution.

"What happened was terrorism to us also," noted Sabah Albofradi, one of about 1,200 Iraqis in this area and a vice president of the Iraqi House of Buffalo. If other Americans continue that terrorism, chalk up another victory for hatred and fear.

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