I remember when the planes hit the towers. I was a sophomore in high school in Academic Support, the euphemistic name the district gave study hall, making up a Global History quiz I missed. My teacher, Ms. Zalewski, turned on the TV. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. She was somber. I assumed it was an accident and was astonished that the plane couldn’t miss the building.
I went the band room for the second half to practice clarinet. Soon, I was the only person in the hall. My (to this day!) dear friend Laura pulled me out and told me a second plane hit the other tower. It was then that I, and maybe everyone else, realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember thinking, “Our turn.” See, I’d spent my youth watching coverage of bombs in the Balkans, bombs in Israel and Palestine, mines in Africa and Asia, bombs seemingly everywhere. Violence seemed to be the way of the world. I’ve never met anyone who also had this reaction.
My countrymen were scared. Isolated by oceans and protected by the strongest military in the world, this sort of attack struck everyone else as unfathomable. We reacted. Oh, did we react. We swiftly went to war and we’ve been at war ever since, about half my lifetime.
I watched as we traded civil liberties for a chance at that fleeting feeling of protection. I watched as a group I rarely thought about before – Muslims – suddenly became the denigrated group. I watched as people approximately my age joined the military and hearing about how some of them never came back. I watched as my country opened a detention center offshores, and then another, and then another despite violating war crimes ethics and conventions. I watched as so many of the values I was taught we had as a child were undone in the name of safety and security. Dissenters were unpatriotic. It became thought reasonable to judge an entire religion based on its extremists. White Christians who never apologized for Timothy McVeigh (who is from my area) demanded apologies from Muslims for 9/11, contributing and creating a conventional (if inaccurate) wisdom that Muslims are violent. The surveillance state grew, buoyed by technological advances and the support of a scared population. I felt like I’d lost my country a bit, that this sweet land of liberty was tip-toeing towards becoming a fear-driven police state.
Getting older has been a disenchanting process realizing that we are not now, nor never have been, as good as I thought. As governor after governor (and some of my local politicians) try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, I realize this: We’ve learned nothing. This is textbook, exactly what we did with the Jewish refugees and look what happened to them. The terror attacks in France were horrific, as terror attacks always are. Horrific and apparently effective, as politicians are now shifting their rhetoric because they are scared, because they sense their constituents are scared, and exploiting fear is politically profitable. Never mind that this is more or less the goal of Daesh/ISIS.
I had already written letters to several elected officials asking they increase the refugee quotas. I live in a depopulated city near many refugees. My next door neighbor was one. A couple families down the street are refugees. A few blocks over and there are many more refugees. Some of them are Muslim. I love where I live and I have the absolute best neighbors. Then I called the governor, called my Congressman with my telephone as it seemed every public figure on Facebook’s comments were filled with people asking to drive the refugees away. No, no, no, no, no…. not this again.
Listen, I’ve known people with Syrian heritage. Heck, I have kin with Syrian heritage! Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. One is Jewish. Syrians are not a monolith. Everything I know about the Syrian war is that it is absolutely brutal. I can’t read about it. I work on problems of profound human misery for a living and I cannot read about the Syrian War or ISIS/Daesh because it’s too bad for me to cope. I get nightmares for days. I give money to refugee agencies, but that is all I can do as an individual. I rely on forces more powerful than I to make wise decisions and here we are closing the door because of the chance – the chance! – that someone from Syria could cause us harm. The chance that someone born in our own country could cause us harm doesn’t inspire us to more strictly regulate our weapons. The fact that cars are the most likely thing to kill us hasn’t inspired most of us to trade in our keys for public transit. We’re more likely to die from overindulging in our dinners and forgetting to exercise than we are in a terror attack but Syrians are the real threat, and please pass the butter.
Refusing to be afraid is a political act. Walking home at night when you are a woman is a political act when everyone tells you that you are assault bait. Not being anxious going into a “bad” (read: usually Black and usually poor) neighborhood is a political act if you are a white person and your society is structured on fearing non-white people. There is this vein in our culture that anything is justifiable if it could protect us from the people we dislike, as if safety were paramount. It’s completely based on prejudice. Crimes rates have been dropping? Whatever. Immigrants commit fewer crimes? Forget it.
I’m so sick of reading comments on my local news websites written by people using the fanciest technology that humanity has ever known, sitting in the wealthiest country of the world, begrudging letting what ends up being relatively few people to their cushy sphere of prosperity because they don’t want their taxes dollars spent on them. Or because they are afraid of “those people”. “Can you justify the risk” I’ve read, over and over again, “that you or your loved ones might be the target of a terrorist who slips in?” We justify lots of risks all of the time. Yet, here, the risk of one person doing harm to us is so great that we should let hundreds of thousands of people die in the process, because we won’t trust an thorough federal government over our prejudices. We value our lives more than anyone else’s. All of our foreign policies boil down to that. We won’t give up our hegemonic position and we’ll kill or let die anyone who we think might threaten that.
We are no better than anyone else, but we certainly act as if our lives are. At the time when “All Lives Matter” is the preferred dismissive retort to those advocating for African American rights, we turn our backs on refugees and bomb the Middle East. All lives matter indeed.
I often think back to September 11, 2001, and mourn, “It could have been so different.” If only we we’d been, or could be now, a bit braver. I hold on to optimism that we could find courage from common humanity, that we could be so brave as to be the moral example, that we could be the model of ideal humanity. I cannot make that argument as we close our doors and use our powers and privileges to ruthlessly prioritize our own safety. I cannot make that claim as our elected leaders attempt to push out the vulnerable.
We could do better. May we be brave enough to live with moral courage, instead of deferring to the impulse of safety at all costs. All costs have been too expensive and it is not going to become cheaper.
11/18/15-edited for grammar and typos.