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Online chat ranges from hate to sympathy

On America Online chat boards, interspersed between expressions of sympathy and discussions of the meaning and cause of the tragedy, AOL members report many people venting anti-Arab hatred.

Like many other Arab-Americans, Walid Besharat went online this week to help make sense of Tuesday's horrific suicide hijackings, an attack widely believed to have been masterminded by the militant Islamic fringe.

What he found was both comfort and fear. On America Online chat boards, interspersed between expressions of sympathy and intense discussions of the meaning and cause of the tragedy, Besharat said he saw many people venting anti-Arab hatred.

"It's really disturbing to see that," said Besharat, a Christian born in Jordan 43 years ago.

The U.S. goverment's attempts to find the perpetrators have so far focused on Arab terrorist groups, and that has led some people to lash out at all Arab-Americans. As a global forum for anonymous expression, the Internet has become a hotbed of hateful messages.

The backlash comes after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history Tuesday, when four jetliners were hijacked and turned into flying bombs. Two were flown into the World Trade Center's twin towers, causing both buildings and many structures around it to crumble. Although the death toll is still unknown, nearly 5,000 people who worked in the towers have been reported missing, presumed buried under 110 stories of rubble.

A third plane was flown into one wing of the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth crashed outside of Pittsburgh.

The federal government quickly compiled a list of suspects, and some officials have placed Osama bin Laden at the top.

Government leaders including President George W. Bush, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki of New York have made public statements discouraging actions against ethnic groups in response to the terrorism.

Nevertheless, a flurry of incidents ranging from death threats and vandalism to profiling in airports has spread throughout the country, alarming Arab-Americans. Mosques have been the targets of attempted arson and vandalism in Washington state and Texas. In New York's Kennedy airport, law enforcement officers searched passengers boarding an American Airlines flight who appeared to be of Arab decent.

"Anyone with dark skin or who spoke with an accent was taken aside and searched," one passenger told The New York Times. "And they went to any male with too much facial hair."

For Arab-Americans in Internet chat rooms, harassment has always been a concern, people say. With the fallout from the horrendous attacks, some Internet services, such as AOL, have heightened the monitoring of some chat rooms to enforce community policies against hate speech.

"We've given special guidance to community action teams to help them enforce our terms of service as regards to hate speech against Muslims," said Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman. "Clearly there are a lot of angry and upset members, and we want them to express opinions and feelings while not attacking members of a racial or religious group."

Weinstein added that inappropriate or threatening language that violates the company's terms of service could warrant a warning or even termination of service. AOL members can also report incidents to monitors, who can then decide whether the service should take action.

Other highly trafficked Web portals such as Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN also expect people to report incidents of intolerable hate speech.

Besharat and other participants of Arab-American chat rooms said they had alerted AOL monitors numerous times. Besharat added that he has been pleased that AOL monitors have intervened when language had become inappropriate among both Arab and anti-Arab voices.

For some people, chat rooms have also been a means of educating people not to characterize Arab-Americans universally as terrorists.

"We're trying to make them understand that we have nothing to do with this and that we're against violence and the killing of innocent people," said one AOL chat room participant who declined to disclose their name.

The participant added that they were in downtown New York when the collapse of the towers occurred. Like everyone else, the participant "ran for (their) life."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.