By Rosemary Pennington
One of the clearest memories I have of Sept. 11 is walking back into the lobby of the radio and TV station at Ohio University and seeing it filled with students, their attention glued to the row of TVs embedded in the front wall. Each small screen showed some version of the same image – what would come to be called ground zero in New York, shrouded in smoke and dust.
I’d spent the morning reporting on the Athens County response to the attacks. I’d visited the local airport to find out about security there and then interviewed people about the first responders leaving Athens for New York City.
As I walked back into the WOUB lobby, videographer and notepad in tow, a bright spot of blue caught my eye. It was the headscarf of a female student, her attention like that of all the others turned to the carnage and sorrow unfolding before her. I thought nothing of it, except for noting the color’s similarity to the sky that terrible September morning, until I was going over the rundown of the nightly TV newscast. At the end of the A-block was a small story about the concerns the local mosque had in regards to safety.
“Safety?” I asked, thinking of that young woman surrounded by other students in the lobby. And then the assistant news director, who’d stayed much later than usual that day, told me how members of the local Muslim community were worried they might be targeted by people out for revenge.
Those responsible for the attacks on 9/11 used their interpretation of their religion – Islam – to partly justify what they’d done. Even though Islam is a global and diverse faith, it was the actions of the 19 hijackers who turned planes into weapons and the beliefs of militant Osama bin Laden that would frame American understandings of Islam in the attack’s aftermath. Some Americans seemed to immediately forget that they had Muslim neighbors, that they went to Muslim doctors, that they shopped at Muslim grocery stores.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims became enemy number one and Islam was increasingly seen as an un-American faith.
The funny thing is ... Muslims have been part of the United States since before it was a nation, with some scholars suggesting that Muslim sailors and cartographers may have mapped what would become the Americas before the European explorers who are mythologized as America’s “discoverers.” But, the long history of Islam in America is often obscured, overshadowed, or erased in relation to current events. That certainly seemed to happen in the aftermath of 9/11.
In 2001, the FBI recorded 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes, many of them reported after the attacks. A mosque in Dearborn, MI, was spray painted with the message that the very American congregants should “Go home.” There were reports of attempts to fire-bomb
an Arab American owned convenience store and of threatening phone calls being made to mosques. One man threatened a Muslim man with a gun, while another man tried to run down a Pakistani woman with his car.
And then, on Sept. 15, threats turned to violence as a man who had been ranting in a bar about immigrants drove to a gas station and shot and killed the owner.
Balbir Singh Sodhi was an immigrant from India. A follower of the Sikh faith, his family says he’d become distraught over the violence Americans experienced on 9/11, concerned that the hate perpetrated by the terrorists would bleed over into American life. The day he died, Sodhi had tried to find an American flag to hang at his gas station, but they’d all sold out. Reportedly 30 minutes before he’d died, he’d given money to a group collecting donations for 9/11 victims.
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Sodhi was murdered simply because he looked Muslim to his murderer.
From there, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment continued to grow. Some of it metastasized into violence, as in the case of the shooting of three young American Muslims in North Carolina in 2015. Some of it served as fuel to political rhetoric that suggested that groups of refugees from Muslim countries might actually be terrorists bent on destroying America.
Then there’s the surveillance conducted by American law enforcement agencies of American Muslim communities, the torturing of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the imprisonment of innocent Muslim individuals as part of the so-called “War on Terror.”
All of it feeding off of the fear produced in the aftermath of 9/11.
Terrorism is an illegal act, or threat, of violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often on civilian populations. But terrorist acts are not just about the violence individuals and groups pull off, it’s also about producing fear that another attack might happen. Fear doesn’t always lead to good policy making. Fear gets in the way of bringing people together.
Fear might be the mind-killer, but it’s also pretty deadly to empathy.
When we give into fear, the terrorists win. When we hurt fellow Americans, the terrorists win. When we imprison innocent individuals abroad, the terrorists win. When our actions lead to the deaths of other civilians, the terrorists win. When we can’t embrace refugees out of fear of who they might be, the terrorists win.
It’s been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks. American Muslims have spoken at national political conventions, appeared as pundits in mainstream news media, won major acting awards, and even been featured in their own comic books.
And, yet, the Islamophobic drumbeat of fear and suspicion still sounds.
We’ve pulled out of Afghanistan and, already, some politicians are starting to frame Afghan refugees as possible threats. Those who would have had us stay raise the specter of militant Islam, all but saying that by leaving Afghanistan we open ourselves up to another 9/11 because Muslims can’t be trusted.
Every time those takes are treated as rational, every time they are uncritically repeated by news media, the terrorists win.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was clear and blue, the beginning to what should have been a perfect early fall day. All the hope and optimism that seemed to hang heavy that morning, gone in an instant, replaced with fear and suspicion of people like the young woman in the blue headscarf watching the horror unfold.
At some point, we have to decide to let go of fear, to stop allowing it to determine the choices we make. My hope for the next 20 years after 9/11 is that we find a way to do that, that we find a way to outgrow that fear. Otherwise we’ll be caught in an endless loop where we are always victims and the terrorists always win.