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Impolite Society

Saying the quiet part loud

Cell phone footage of a middle-aged white man spewing Islamophobic bile is not a novelty in America. After Israel commenced its genocidal campaign against Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack, it was only a matter of time until a new fervid racist appeared and went viral, which happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

But it is rare in the post-2016 pantheon of viral bigotry that the middle-aged white man in question is as relaxed, almost serene, and exceptionally well-informed as the man recorded harassing a halal cart vendor on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is. “Does your father like his fingernails? The Mukhabarat in Egypt, they’ll take them out one by one,” he intones in one video. Any Egyptian will know exactly what he is talking about; the U.S. government has often turned over foreign nationals on terrorism watch lists to Egypt’s dreaded intelligence agency to be interrogated in ways even post-9/11 America won’t allow.

In other videos, he slanders the vendor’s religion in great detail, brags about the death of Palestinian children (“If we killed four thousand Palestinian kids, you know what? It wasn’t enough.”), and threatens him with deportation, jovially explaining how his contacts at Immigration Services could make the necessary arrangements. As the number of videos multiplied on social media, it became clear the man had been harassing the same vendor for weeks. Stuart Seldowitz was eventually arrested on hate crime, stalking, and harassment charges. The consulting firm that employed him, Gotham Government Relations, cut all ties with him. When it surfaced that he was a former diplomat who had served under five different presidents, including Obama, people were shocked.

Syring and Seldowitz are products of the state, and so is the obsessive quality, the diligent specificity, of their hatred.

I wasn’t. Not just because I have seen firsthand how the U.S. foreign policy apparatus encourages deeply irrational fixations with Muslims but because this isn’t even the first time something like this has happened. In 2006, Patrick Syring—a foreign service officer who had spent decades overseas, including at the U.S. embassy in Beirut—launched a targeted harassment campaign against the Arab American Institute. As a 2021 story in the Washingtonian details, he sent hateful emails and voicemails—including death threats—to the institute’s president, James Zogby, and other senior employees. In 2008, he was sentenced to a one-year prison term and three years of supervised release for violating Zogby’s civil rights. He didn’t let up, though: he soon began emailing anyone with a possible connection to Zogby, including academics, AAI’s corporate sponsors, and others. When he finished his sentence, he returned his attention to Zogby and the institute, leading to a second conviction in 2019. Syring is now completing a five-year sentence.

These are not men “canceled” for one-off meltdowns. These are men who made their living in part by being Middle East experts. They had other jobs over the course of their careers, of course, but they lived in and knew about the Middle East because they negotiated treaties and screened immigrants for terrorist connections on behalf of the United States. We enjoy the comforting conceit that racists are simply ignorant, but in this case, they are very, very knowledgeable.

For a time, I shared a career with Syring and Seldowitz. I spent seven years as a U.S. diplomat, mostly covering immigration and citizenship issues, and while I never crossed paths with either of them, I know their type—they were always my boss’s boss. Both of them had decades-long careers at the State Department, both of them worked on Middle East issues during the war on terror, and both of them decided to utterly immolate their respectable and well-heeled lives in public acts of obsessive hatred directed at Arabs and Muslims. They were not just explosively bigoted; they were pathologically fixated.

Being a diplomat doesn’t drive you insane. That isn’t the argument I’m making. These are just two men out of tens of thousands of employees, most of whom never work in the Middle East, and almost none of whom have committed or been charged with hate crimes. Syring and Seldowitz are aberrations. What I hope to make clear, though, is that even if the institution didn’t drive these men mad, even if it didn’t directly instigate their racist obsessions, I don’t believe they would have done what they did were it not for their time within the State Department. Syring and Seldowitz are products of the state, and so is the obsessive quality, the diligent specificity of their hatred. It is a fixation that permeates the American foreign policy establishment, its immigration system, its economic sanctions, and its military assistance: the idea that Arabs and Muslims are uniquely threatening and vexing subjects that must be fixed, or failing that, destroyed.

Neither of these men was a hero or particularly well-liked in their field. Neither was especially important: Seldowtiz’s résumé may sound impressive because he served in the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, and on Obama’s National Security Council, but his jobs were not those that make policy. Syring’s career was much like my own. He had a few economic postings in Europe and Argentina but also usually worked in some capacity in visa sections. His career as a visa officer was cut short by the Islamophobia he displayed towards visa applicants, which managed to concern even to a post-9/11 State Department. He spent the last years of his career behind a desk at the Office of Economic Policy Analysis.

Both men’s careers trailed off under dubious circumstances. Seldowitz left the National Security Council because of an Office of the Inspector-General investigation into over $15,000 worth of fraudulent reimbursement vouchers dating all the way back to 1989 (he overcharged the State Department for rent on a Geneva apartment while negotiating arms reduction with the USSR). Syring was allowed to retire quietly while under FBI investigation for felony hate crimes. Former State Department colleagues of Seldowitz remember him as deeply unpleasant, and Syring was basically not remembered at all: a quiet and reserved man whose co-workers could say little more than how average he was. They were not G. Gordon Liddy-level reactionaries; they were not archvillains of the war on terror like Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney.

Not only could their racial fixations grow unchecked, but they could also find justified application in their line of work. It was by no means against the grain. During the war on terror, the United States asked its public servants—and even spent great efforts training them—to be disproportionately suspicious of and hostile to people from the Middle East. Developing new screening criteria and knowing jargon about Islamic extremist thought were ways to get ahead and demonstrate your ability to support policy.

While Stuart Seldowitz was the deputy director of the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, the most significant diplomatic activity under his jurisdiction was the frustrating, confusing, and failed Camp David Summit in 2000 between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the Clinton administration, and prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israeli government. Though presented as a way to tie up all the loose ends from the Oslo Accords, it was really an effort to finish off the Israel-Palestine peace process once and for all. These talks demanded concessions only from the Palestinians; the Clinton administration offered an “independent” Palestine with no meaningful sovereignty or army, denied the use of Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital city, required Arafat to accept the legalization and annexation by Israel of a number of West Bank settlements, and did not promise any right of return for Palestinians displaced in 1948. It was, in essence, a demand that Palestine be established as a Bantustan like the nominally independent “native” puppet states of Apartheid South Africa. For rejecting the deal, Arafat was judged intransigent and uninterested in peace by U.S. diplomats desperate for a big achievement in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

The climate at the talks was apparently bitter and frustrating. I think it matters, and matters a great deal, that Seldowtiz, decades before he publicly gloated about the mass death of Palestinians, was involved in the policy that led to those talks. That before he was run out of the State Department for submitting fraudulent receipts, before he was recorded delighting in genocide and the ignorance of the Arab world, he was part of an effort to demand that Palestinians legally sign away anything resembling a meaningful homeland. Seldowitz threatened one man with torture and deportation and may remain a social pariah for the rest of his life (unless some right-wing think tank plucks him off the sidelines). He threatened an entire people with aid cuts, territorial dispossession, loss of sovereignty, and well, that was just part of the job!

Patrick Syring wasn’t working in the Middle East in 2001; he was in what would be his final visa officer assignment at the U.S. Consulate-General in Frankfurt. After 9/11, he became obsessed, angry, terrified. Though not yet at all Arabs; it would be a few years before he started spamming the email inboxes of Arab American Institute staffers with emails saying the only good Arab is a dead Arab, among other things, which court records show he later did over seven hundred times between 2012 and 2017. No, instead, he was terrified that he had been the officer to issue a flight school visa to one of the 9/11 hijackers who got them approved in Frankfurt (several had been). So he tore through the archives, searching through the approval forms in a panic.

But he didn’t stop there. He became fixated; he saw terrorists everywhere and began refusing all applicants from certain countries, circling the country of birth on the applications of people of Middle Eastern descent and returning their applications marked with a “T” for terrorists. This was not—at all—the correct procedure for designating anyone a terrorist (code 3B). When called into his bosses’ office, Syring actually tried to argue that all Lebanese, or Jordanians, or Iraqis, or whomever, were terrorists simply by virtue of where they were from. He accepted “voluntary curtailment” sometime after 2002, which is to say he was ejected from the consulate and sent back to Washington, D.C.; a rare bureaucratic move for deeply problematic employees but several steps short of actually firing him.

Structural violence demands a certain politeness.

Oh, if Patrick could have just held on for another few years! If he could have been patient, he would have seen his mania become not only tolerated but elevated to the center of U.S. policy. The paper forms he hatefully marked were replaced by digital records, and his racist invective by computerized and systematized screening protocols and databases that allow immigration officers never to have to say in so many words that they think all Arabs are terrorists. Your application just needs some additional administrative processing! The algorithm says so!

By late 2015, the Obama administration had instituted Syring’s insinuation that all citizens of some countries were terrorists in the Countries of Concern program, a list of nations whose citizens all required additional screening. If Syring just acted reasonably and held on in his Department of State career, he could have gotten what he wanted. In 2017, the year he sent death threats to five employees of the Arab American Institute, he could have been helping the Trump administration enact the Muslim Ban. What he was thrown out of the Frankfurt consulate for doing was eventually elevated to official U.S. government policy.

Our problem with Syring and Seldowitz is essentially rhetorical and jurisdictional. You don’t get to say it like that. You don’t get to say it like that. The FBI agents investigating Syring for harassing James Zogby could turn right around and search James Zogby’s home on equally spurious accusations of terrorism, and that would be proper—that’s their bailiwick. Harassing Arab Americans is not an acceptable quest for a random retired foreign service officer in his Virginia condo. That’s the FBI’s job. You can green-light the shipments of MK-84 bombs to Israel to kill thousands of Palestinian children, give them the diplomatic green light to do it, and veto condemnation of killing four thousand children at the UN, but you can’t brag about it. That’s hate speech.

The thing is, though, “God, I wish the Israelis would just kill these people” is something you can sigh into a scotch and soda with your co-workers at the hotel bar after a day of frustrated “diplomacy.” Nobody would bat an eye. It’s just blowing off steam. But if you’re recorded saying it to a halal cart vendor in Manhattan, you have violated the social contract. If you stay within the system, almost everything is allowable: structural violence demands a certain politeness.

Seldowitz is a shocking example of abandoned pretense, but Syring is a more telling one: a fixation all out of proportion to any actual concern, coldly and methodically maintained. Logical and knowing but completely insane at the same time. If we produce Seldowitzes, we can be shocked and horrified. We can console ourselves that he was a personally corrupt asshole. When I think about what Syring did, I am not shocked, to be honest; what does shock me is the realization of how many Patrick Syrings there are who kept their feelings within the bounds of the “acceptable.” How many are still out there, diligently working away—and applying their personal fixations in a work-appropriate context.