A Safer World

Over the past decade, the United States and other countries have worked to stop terrorism, educating citizens to recognize and report potential dangers. Some terrorist attacks have indeed been prevented. But the public’s fear of fiendish new enemies also has caused many abuses of civil liberties. Thousands of people worldwide have been convicted on charges of terrorism, although some of them did nothing more than take part in political demonstrations or otherwise peacefully criticize their governments.

Terrorism is, of course, nothing new. Nations in the modern era have been dealing with it since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament with barrels of gunpowder on November 5, 1605. He was captured and tortured until he revealed the identities of the other conspirators. The British still celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by shooting off fireworks and by lighting bonfires on which effigies of the terrorist, referred to as “guys,” are burned.

A century ago, the public had a great fear of anarchists who committed terrorist acts with the aim of making governments collapse. Although some anarchists were peaceful philosophers such as Leo Tolstoy, others schemed to carry out acts of violence. U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. During this period, union organizers and others who sought social reform often were suspected of being violent anarchists and were beaten and jailed.

Eventually the American public’s fear of anarchist conspiracies morphed into a similar fear of communist plotters in our midst, which went on for several decades more. When civil rights demonstrators were attacked and beaten in the 1950s, many people thought they were communist agitators and deserved the abuse.

Yet despite these widespread fears, the labor unions and the civil rights advocates prevailed. It seems absurd now that union members walking picket lines once were seen as anarchist mobs bent on destroying our society, and that the FBI kept Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. under surveillance for many years because he was suspected of being a dangerous communist agent. Ultimately the public has been capable of looking beyond its fears and of making reasoned judgments. As Dr. King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In today’s world, autistics often come under suspicion based on characteristics such as looking anxious, avoiding eye contact, and having difficulty speaking, which have been described for purposes of behavioral profiling as indicators that a person is likely to be a terrorist. Autistic rights advocates are working to educate policymakers that, in fact, these characteristics often indicate nothing more than harmless quirks of neurological wiring. But although fear of terrorism has drawn attention to this issue, the underlying prejudices existed long before now. Most autistics, at one time or another, have been unfairly accused of wrongdoing or have been denied jobs or other opportunities because of them. Indeed, these prejudices run so deep that many people cannot imagine a world without them, which seems to be why there are so many ABA programs that focus on training autistic children to pass as non-autistic.

By setting out these prejudices and their consequences in such stark terms, behavioral profiling and the controversy about it may help to raise the public’s awareness of our society’s mistreatment of autistics—much as, in past generations, the extreme and unreasonable accusations against unionists and civil rights activists failed to stand up to closer examination. People who had always taken the prevailing assumptions for granted, as the natural order, began to notice that there were other ways of looking at things. Future generations may well consider today’s behavioral stereotypes to be just as senseless as what we think of yesterday’s prejudices.

When that happens, we’ll have a safer world for everyone.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 09/20/11 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

Leave a Reply