Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ten years later

Tonight I was fortunate to attend an event at the Newseum in honor of the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Charles Gibson was the moderator of a panel of guests, including Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush's press secretary at the time; Victoria Clarke, who then served as the Pentagon spokesperson; and Jim Miklaszewski, chief Pentagon correspondent for NBC News and the first person on the scene to report that the Pentagon had been attacked.

The panelists each gave us their recollection of where they were when they first heard the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, and how the events unfolded thereafter. Charles Gibson also told of his experience as anchor of Good Morning America that morning. Each of them were in the unique position of being called upon to explain to others what had happened, while they themselves were finding out with the rest of the country. And not always receiving accurate information. I think Ms. Clarke summed it up the best at the end of the evening by repeating a quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan after the Kennedy Assassination. "We will laugh again, but we will never be young again." She thought to herself as she drove past tanks on on the Key Bridge on her way home that evening, "I will never be young again."

After ten years, I still have not come to terms with the events that transpired that day. It feels foolish for me to say that, I was living in Iowa and I did not know anyone who was directly affected by the attack at that time. I was so far removed from the events, but ten years later I am still taken aback by memories of that day. I do not live in fear, and it is hard to put into words. But Ms. Clarke's reference sums it up well. Something was taken from all of us that day. We are forever connected to the memories of that horrific day. Even those of us who did not suffer a direct loss of a loved one, we are not the same people we were on September 10, 2001.

A few weeks ago, a coworker walked into the office in the morning, visibly shaken. She had taken the commuter train into Washington, D.C., as she does every day. She was hesitant to admit what was bothering her, but she whispered very softly what had happened on the train that morning. She spoke quietly for fear of being overheard, and she told me the reason she was so shaken. She said she was on the train sitting next to a Muslim man with a full beard and he was holding prayer beads. She noticed this right away and sat down next to the quiet man and reprimanded herself for the immediate mental connection she made to Muslim terrorists on 9/11. Then, the man gripped his beads and began to pray quietly. She noticed the large duffel bag at his feet. She sat next to him and became more uncomfortable as he rocked in his seat, put his face in his hands, looked up to the sky, and prayed much more actively. At this point she felt very afraid. As she told the story, she was puzzled by emotions - is she a bigot? Is she intolerant? She knew it was the holy month of Ramadan at that time, but it was also days after an unexpected earthquake and days before a hurricane was expected to hit the area. The whole world already seemed to be going crazy and all she could think of was that she was on public transportation in the nation's capital and the man next to her was making his peace with Allah before bombing the train.

She got up and moved to a different train car and struggled with overpowering emotions. She felt bad to have judged someone who she understands was probably just praying during Ramadan. At the same time, if her fears were truly instinctive and he had something suspicious in his bag, she could have neglected to save lives because she erred on the side of political correctness. She asked again if I thought she was a bigot after having told me this. Yet she still had strong feelings from what she witnessed, it felt like a rational fear.

I know her fairly well, and I do not think she is a bigot. I told her so, and I don't think her reaction is her fault. She didn't react that way because of some internal hatred toward Muslims, she reacted that way because her immediate mental connection to Muslims was to stories about terrorist activity. We do not see a lot of representation of moderate Muslims in our culture. Muslim representations are now what Soviets were during the Cold War. I told her that if she would have alerted a conductor and had the entire train offloaded and delayed everyone's commute while the man's parcels were searched, simply because he was praying in public, then she could be headed down the road of intolerance. She didn't do anything about it, but she was afraid and struggled with the "what if" feeling of the possibility that her fears were not unfounded and the danger was real. She struggled with her emotions for the entire day, but I think that her concerns would have been a common reaction among many non-Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world.

On Tuesday, Muslim author Irshad Manji was interviewed on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Thoughts of my coworker's experience filled my head as she spoke of "the most dangerous four letter f-word in the English language: Fear." She continues,

I see among broad-hearted Americans (non-Muslim), FEAR about asking questions of Muslims and Islam because they are afraid of being judged as bigots for doing so. And I see among liberal Muslims like myself, fear of going on the record about our views b/c we fear either of being called traitors by Islam supremacists, or “terrorists-in-waiting” by Islam bashers. So you can see that there are layers of fright all over the place and frankly, I think the next ten years need to be about reconciliation but not just between Muslims and non-Muslims, also between honesty and conversation. If we can’t have honest conversations in which you guys are allowed as non-Muslims to raise uncomfortable questions, then we’re never going to get to the root of what it takes to reconcile.

While I never expect to fully be able to contemplate the events of 9/11 or the effect they have had on the world, I owe a debt of gratitude to people like Irshad Manji, and the panelists who spoke tonight of their experiences. It is true that we will never be young again, but we still have plenty of room to grow as a country. In the days after 9/11, Americans were united in ways I have not seen before or since. Charles Gibson mentioned that his daughter was a few blocks from the World Trade Center and she witnessed countless acts of kindness and humanity as people helped one another through the fog of debris. Ten years later, it is incumbent upon us to help one another through the residual fog of fear.

1 comment:

policomic said...

What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I like your comparison of the present conception of Muslims many non-Muslim Americans hold to the image of Soviet Russians a lot of us used to carry around in our heads. The fear was real, and had its foundations in reality (the USSR had all of those warheads, and their system truly was a nightmare of oppression).

But the short conceptual step from legitimate concern to irrational fear arises from exactly the kind of lack of a fuller picture you point to, in noting that "We do not see a lot of representation of moderate Muslims in our culture."

Yes, Soviet missiles were a threat to the US. Yes, al Queda was and is a threat to the US. But the people of the USSR (who are now the people of Russia and the other former Soviet Republics) were not themselves a force of pure malevolence, no matter how unjust their government or dangerous their government's weapons.

Americans used to try to comfort themselves by doing things like joking about the supposed unattractiveness of Russian women. As late as the 1980s, there was a Wendy's commercial trading on this well-entrenched stereotype. Now we know about Maria Sharapova, who is not only pretty, but loves puppies (according to a more recent series of camera commercials). As trivial as this seems, I think it's actually a pretty good illustration of your point: Part of what happened in that pretty short space of years between those two commercials is that our culture's field of view grew a little broader. Obviously, not every Russian woman looks like Marie Sharapova, but 25 years ago, we were unwilling to admit that any of them could.

Of course, the other thing that happened was that the USSR, at least as we had known it, dissolved. That won't happen with stateless Islamic extremism, but I do think the fear will at least be mitigated when our picture of Islam broadens.