On March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman, was fatally beaten with a tire iron in Southern California. A note found near her said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The investigators asserted that it was an isolated incident and that other Iraqis need not worry. Lumping disparate peoples into threats and describing violence against them as “isolated incidents” works in tandem. The former justifies sustained violence and the latter diverts our attention from the systemic nature of this violence. What we see instead are exceptional events — “isolated incidents” of violence suspended outside the broader societal context and exigencies of the national security state. We don’t see them as the latest in a long chain of violence on a particular group of people or an episode in the nation’s deep history of violence and dispossession.
Alia Malek’s work of oral history, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, gives the lie to the frame — isolated incident — that holds within it the image of the idyllic American society as it effaces its systematic injustices. By including the violated as victims of isolated crimes, this frame excludes the chorus of their voices. It shuts out the stories of unrelenting violence: of racial terrors such as beatings and violent deaths; of legal terrors such as incarcerations, detentions, and deportations; of routine, everyday violence such as bullying at school, employment discrimination, travelling made arduous, racist jibes and sneers. In Malek’s words, “the personal stories and lived experiences of these realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In Patriot Acts that chorus pushes at the constricting margins of the frame and enables us to see the lives damaged and the families shattered by America’s domestic war on terror.