Remembering ‘the day that changed everything’

Smoke billowing from the Pentagon in Washington, DC after an airplane crashed into it on September 11, 2001. Luke Frazza / AFP
Smoke billowing from the Pentagon in Washington, DC after an airplane crashed into it on September 11, 2001. Luke Frazza / AFP

September 11, 2001 started out as a lovely day in Washington. I was driving to work and had stopped at a red light. I looked over at the woman in the next lane because she was frantically motioning to me to roll down my window. As I did, she shouted “Did you hear? A plane flew into the World Trade Center. My father works there.” The light changed to green and we drove off. I never saw her again. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fear in her eyes, just as I will always wonder if her father was one of the thousands who perished in that horror.

I arrived at my office in time to see the second plane hit and it became clear that this was no freak accident. America had been attacked. The nightmare began.

My daughter, whose office was a short distance from the Pentagon, was ordered to leave. She called, frightened and concerned. Before long, the police arrived at my building asking us to leave. Because we are just two blocks away from the White House, the entire area was being cordoned off. Since I was receiving calls from Arab Americans across the country seeking guidance and assistance, I asked if I could remain. They let me stay.

The next day, I arrived at my office and began to retrieve the phone messages that had been left overnight. Among them was a chilling death threat: “Jim, all Arabs must die. I’ll slit your throat and murder your children.” It was not the first threat I had received, nor was it to be the last – in fact, three individuals who threatened my life, including that caller, were found by the FBI, charged, prosecuted by the Department of Justice, convicted, and served jail time.

I was not alone. Arab Americans, and those who were presumed to be of Arab descent, experienced a terrifying onslaught of threats of violence and some were murdered in the backlash that followed the attacks. One month after September 11, I was invited to testify before the US Commission on Civil Rights. My office had prepared a detailed collection of all the incidents of violence and threats that had occurred. It told a frightening story of hate and the fear it had generated.

As I look back on that period, it was not the threats themselves that most troubled me, it was that the threats separated us in a profoundly disturbing way from our suffering compatriots. Like the rest of America, we felt the pain of the loss of so many innocent lives. I remember watching the tragic scenes on CNN of crowds of New Yorkers standing up against the cordons that separated them from ground zero. Many carried pictures of loved ones who had been in the towers. They read “Missing” – hoping, against hope that missing, not deceased, was the right word. They cried when interviewed, and we cried with them.

Like the rest of America, we hurt and we needed time to be together, to be comforted and healed. This, we were denied. The threats said: “You are not part of us.” We were wrenched away and forced, instead, to look over our shoulders and seek protection.

Thankfully, protection was there, as were acts of kindness, large and small. Senators called to offer support. Organisations hosted events in solidarity. The police kept police cars in front of our building for weeks. And I’ll never forget the sweet woman from the office next door, who came in one morning with brownies she had baked for my staff, saying: “I know you guys aren’t supposed to leave and go out for lunch, so I hope you’ll enjoy these.” All of this was so appreciated. But as wondrous as these displays of kindness were that they also felt as undeserved as the threats. We had done nothing to earn the hate, and nothing to earn the love.

It is in this same vein that I sometimes wonder about the 19 attackers. I think of how they must have come to America to live for a time. I imagine the landladies who gave them housing. The store owners who sold them groceries. The ordinary folk they met on the street who exchanged greetings with them. And all the while they were plotting murder with such evil in their hearts. They had taken advantage of America’s openness to kill Americans. Their victims had done nothing to deserve their fate; they were ordinary people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While I often think about how much Americans lost on that day, in recent years, I have also come to reflect on how much we lost in the months and years that followed. Instead of building on the wave of international support for the United States, the George W Bush administration lost it all by arrogantly entering two disastrous wars that cost the country dearly in lives and money, devastated Iraq and its people, weakened the military, and destroyed America’s standing worldwide. At the same time, Mr Bush cavalierly embarked on a campaign that, in the name of security, eroded a broad range of fundamental constitutional protections.

The wounds of the wars are still with us, with at least 22 veterans committing suicide every day. The damage done to the US constitution grows more serious, given the absence of political leadership with the courage to point out that the dangerous practices put into place after September 11 haven’t made Americans more secure and should be scuttled.

September 11 was called “the day that changed everything”. It surely did. It is important to remember the horror, the loss, the pain, the fear and, yes, even the anger; and to recall the solidarity and kindness that, for some, helped ease the sting. But, to be true to that fateful day, Americans must also reflect on the lessons we should have learnt from the shredding of human rights and the crimes that were committed in the name of hate.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: September 10, 2016 04:00 AM

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