A group of Saudis, some having beard, were standing in the departure lounge at New York's airport on their way to San Francisco after undergoing security checks specially designed for citizens from blacklisted countries.
The Americans who were in the hall were silent. Tension and anxiety were visible on their faces. Suddenly, some of them rushed to the airline office to cancel or postpone their trips, giving different excuses. But the real reason was the presence of a number of Middle Eastern passengers on the flight.
The Saudi group again underwent security checks at the aircraft's door. There was a thorough check of every person and his hand luggage. All of them, except one, got seats in the First Class cabin. The same scenario repeated inside the aircraft. No sooner had the other passengers seen the Saudi passengers that they went into a panic. Some of them started murmuring. In the meantime, nine women, one after the other, left the plane.
On another flight, a female passenger started crying hysterically when she found herself sitting in the midst of a group of Arabs. An air stewardesses was forced to take the woman out of the aircraft when they failed to pacify her. Naturally, on both occasions the flight was delayed by more than an hour.
In fact, the experience I had during my recent visit to Washington as well as the journalistic trips I had following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was quite different.
I visited the US capital again last week, as a representative of the World Islamic Forum for Dialogue, to attend a meeting organized by the United Nations in search for peace in the Middle East.
I was treated decently and with understanding by the embassy officials here and had good reception from the organizers there.
Even at the airports, despite the thorough checking, the officials behaved nicely. An officer at New York airport asked me about the purpose of my visit and sought some personal information. He also took my picture and fingerprints. But he was very kind to me and expressed his regret for the thorough checking imposed by the current situation. He also expressed his hope that one day such checking would not be necessary.
The officers who were checking me and others were intelligent and professional. They did their job perfectly, without insulting us or causing any trouble. The behavior of people outside the airport was also pleasant, just like what I expect from Americans everywhere.
However, I understood that the Americans' fear was real and astonishing, especially when they travel by plane. Nobody can blame them after the worst experience they had. A plane journey in the US used to be as simple as train or bus journey in other countries. It has now become tedious as well as expensive because airline companies suffer billions of dollars in losses as a result of the decrease in number of passengers and increase in insurance and security expenditures.
The fear was not limited to airline passengers. It has covered also all consumer and investment sectors. I heard American experts saying how the hesitation of consumers and investors to spend or invest their money caused economic depression in the country, which it had never experienced after the end of the second Gulf war in 1992.
Things went bad to worse when the present administration decided to increase military spending, which is expected to exceed $100 billion this year. This is in addition to the expenditures on war on terrorism inside and outside the US. The administration has not back down from its election promises of cuts in taxes and increase in health and education spending.
Let me return to the issue of fear and tell you what some American thinkers and politicians -- including former Congressman Paul Findley, Republican politician Dr. Cliff Karikov, Stanley Cohen, a lawyer specialized in Arab and Islamic issues, and William Baker, a political activist who backs Arab issues -- told me recently.
The gist of what they have told me is that the current American administration has taken its plan word by word from Sharon and wanted to spread fear and anxiety in the minds of its citizens. In this atmosphere of fear and tension, the government can play the role of a spiritual father and savior and justify its security measures and military adventures, which would be rejected by Americans under normal circumstances, for not conforming with their constitution and because of their secular culture.
But most American intellectuals including Martin Saif, managing editor of United Press International (UPI) for foreign affairs, told me that the current administration was carrying out the agenda of extremist Crusaders and Zionists led by Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz and influential advisers like Richard Pearl. Pearl prepared a study in 1996 for Benjamin Netanyahoo, urging him to pressure the US administration to change the region's map by launching a war on Iraq.
We see the same recommendations made by Pearl dominating American policy today. If we put this picture in the wider perspective of the existing alliance that supports the rightist Israeli government, it becomes clear for us the relation between the inflated fear in the US after the 9/11 events and the fear triggered by Sharon. Sharon provoked the Palestinians by visiting the Ibrahimi Mosque before elections in 2000.
Fear gives birth to terrorism and terrorism creates more fear. The producers and directors of horror films should understand that the fear and fire they spread would hit back them one day.
* Managing Editor of Al-Madina Daily,