"Purge our society," online bigots shout

Post-disaster threats and expressions of racism bubble up on the Web.

By Janelle Brown

Published September 11, 2001 8:48PM (EDT)

The Internet was stretched to capacity this morning as the world went online seeking updates on the national disaster. With many of the Net's news sites -- CNN, MSNBC and Fox News -- struggling to stay online in spite of overloaded servers, people flooded to their online communities, mailing lists and chat rooms to find information, solace and, in some cases, an audience. And while most online reactions have focused on expressions of emotional support and pleas for calm, there is also evidence that in many online communities, Muslim-Christian relations already are breaking down -- as posters, assuming the attacks are the work of Islamic radicals, lash out in fury.

It took just a few hundred posts, for example, for the mourning community at Craig's List to start encountering racist posts. Craig's List bulletin boards, which constitute the San Francisco Bay Area's largest online community, erupted early in the day with concerned posters looking for news and locations for blood donation, while offering condolences and expressions of shock. But within hours, the tone began to change -- despite the lack of evidence connecting any specific group to the disaster. Reported site founder Craig Newmark: "I'm already telling people not to Arab/Muslim bash." Evidently to no avail.

"These are EVIL people and the United States needs to respond accordingly! No more politically correct crap! We need to send these MUSLIM finatical freaks a message that this will not happen to our country EVER again!" one poster wrote.

"Seek out all those that do not believe in Christ and eliminate them. for if they do not believe in Christ, they do not believe in me. Purge our society of these rodents," wrote another. "When Palestinians throw rocks, Jews throw bombs.

Jews are worse than Hitler," responded a third.

Others on the site advised foreigners to leave the country, "FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY. America is at war now and non-us citizens will not be protected. An ACT of WAR has been declared against AMERICA it is now up to every US Citizen to take action against the enemies within our Borders." Another posted, "America is at War and the enemies must be rooted out, removed and eliminated ... before the vigilante groups take out their vengeance on anyone with an Aribic surname."

At Metafilter, a prominent community weblog, the reactions were more muted, and site host Matthew Haughey said pessimistically, "I'm sure it's only a matter of time before someone will start pointing fingers and saying racist things." As one poster mused, "Muslims will be the first to be blamed. All 1.2 billion of us."

The disturbing vitriol transcended racial lines, too, as others used the Web to preach the total destruction of the unidentified enemies. "We hope that swift and forceful action is taken against whomever is found to be responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," said one e-mail distributed by the CEO of the company Coffeecup.com. "If any country is found responsible for these attacks, we call for that country's complete destruction and annihilation..."

Still, early in the day, the vast majority of posters called for peace. "As rumors fly about the perpetrators, let's not compound this terrible tragedy by bashing ethnic or religious groups for the acts of fringe extremists," Craig's List's leaders begged. "The only antidote to terrorism -- hate -- is love," posted another.

Religious communities online also were primarily calling for peace and tolerance. At Beliefnet, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims alike shared prayers for the victims and shared concern over the safety of Muslims in America. Begged one poster, "There are extremists in all nations, in all religions, in all countries. They are not represented by a single group of people."

At Islamicity.com, Muslim-American leaders -- including educators from the Islamic Education Center and the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- condemned the attack, offered their condolences, and begged their readers to donate blood for victims. Other Muslim and Afghan Web sites reposted a news report from the Taliban, expressing concern for the United States. Still, anti-Afghan sentiment was on the rise online. For example, the bulletin boards at Afgha.com, a site for opponents of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, were filling with posts that called for "Death to Afghanistan" and "Bastards of Islam shall die."

At HinduUnity.org, an anti-Muslim site, Muslims were blamed outright for the attack. "The ignorant world doesn't realize that the problem is the religion of Islam, not Islamic Fundamentalism," the site screamed in capital letters. "Islam promotes jihad and the destruction of non-Muslims in the Koran. Islam promises heaven to the Muslims who die in their struggle for Jihad. Wake up world!"

At Christianity.com, the site called for the world to "pray for our nation's leaders, both those who are currently in power and those that shall be given such authority. Our rulers hold a special place of authority over us that is instigated by God." However, the site also hosted an ironically timed interview with religious conservative Pat Robertson, apparently dated yesterday, which warned against the dangers of Islamic terrorism.

There are "militant Islamic groups that meet routinely, here in the United States, literally three or four times a month, with upwards of 4 or 5,000 people attending," Robertson says in the interview. "The problem here is the religious activities that Islamic fundamentalists are pursuing are dedicated toward violence and toward eradicating the existence of other peoples."

Meanwhile, educational Web sites began to discuss how to deal with the possibilities of racism and racial tension at school when children return, presumably as early as tomorrow. On CNNfyi, a news site that provides lesson plans for teachers, teachers were advised to "encourage your students to talk and write about their feelings," but didn't mention issues of racism or religion.

Elsewhere on the Net:

-- On eBay, one tasteless prankster put up an auction to "sell the world trade building, some assembly required." EBay yanked the auction down within minutes.

-- The owner of Worldtradecenter.com posted a note that said "Domain available as memorial or for some other suitable purpose."

-- At Style.com, where fashionistas were halfway through New York Fashion week, the debate over "White boots for fall?" was quickly replaced by "Forget about Marc Jacobs, I'm devastated."

-- The ubiquitous pop-under ads for X10.com were replaced by a message that said "Sorry, no ads for now, tragedy in NYC."

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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