Opinion

Charles: What have we learned from 9/11? Apparently, not much.

Eighteen years ago today, four planes took off — two from Boston’s Logan Airport and one each from Dulles in Washington and from Newark, N.J. — all of them headed to the West Coast. 

None of them made it. 

Two destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the fourth, apparently diverted from its intended target, also in the nation’s capital, crashed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pa.

Sept. 11, 2001 is this century’s “where were you when” moment. Nearly 3,000 people died from those actions that day — more are dying today, first responders who are suffering the effects of the asbestos in the buildings that turned into giant crematoriums. Two generations ago, it was President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that shocked the world. That day plunged much of the nation in grief, even for those of us barely old enough to remember — but the response afterward was so different. 

Those of us who live in close proximity to Logan have our own 9/11 memories. Two people from my church lost a cousin that day. A couple of my friends who worked at the airport were visited by the FBI because they had seen, and could describe the hijackers. One of them had planned on taking an impromptu trip on one of the flights, but decided at the last minute not to go. When he closed the door to that West Coast-bound plane that had some of his co-workers on it, he was the last one to see them alive.

We remember the weirdness of the following days — the eerie silence of the skies, the sadness, the grief, the horror, the wanting to do something.

As the stories unfolded, and the reason 19 young men decided to commit mass murder and sacrifice themselves, the anger and raw grief turned into something else. And it was ugly. 

Suddenly the enemies were people — any people — who practiced Islam. 

I’ve been Muslim-adjacent for many years now. My younger sister embraced Islam in her 20s, and later married and raised her daughter in the Muslim faith.

My niece was 11 that year and although she lived in Chicago, she remembers the fear, panic and uncertainty. Everything changed, she told me. American flags were suddenly on everyone’s car antenna. 

And even though she’s black, she says she was profiled. Her name is Arabic, everyone knew she was Muslim and kids at school were asking questions, “saying ignorant things. And it was worse when I was with my mom,” she told me.

Eighteen years later she remembers the increased security at the mosque and people becoming more suspicious of any newcomers.

Suddenly any Americans who were Middle Eastern and/or Muslim (or just looked Middle Eastern) were viewed with suspicion. I remember commiserating with my ophthalmologist, whose family is from India. He talked to me about being profiled because, well, they all look alike.

And don’t think that hatred has gone away. Two years ago, the Item published a series “Am I a Bigot?” which explored prejudices and bigotry against people from different ethnicities, differently abled, and different religions. The most heartbreaking and eye-opening part of our series was probably what happened behind the scenes. We had the hardest time getting someone from the Muslim community to share their story. Several were terrified and worried of being targeted if they talked publicly about — being targeted.

The current occupant of the White House campaigned on the hate and fear that come too easily to us. A promised ban on people from Muslim-majority countries, along with other vile proclamations against people of different ethnicities, countries of origin or who speak different languages (coincidentally, most of them darker hued) propelled him into the most powerful position in the country, while apologists decided that 19 misguided young men represented a whole swath of people from different countries, whose main common denominator was practicing one of the world’s oldest religions.

We haven’t come very far in this single-minded ignorance. Just this year, a Pennsylvania middle school’s active shooter training video dressed up its perpetrators in Middle Eastern garb. Seriously? Has no one noticed the plethora of young white men who shoot up schools, churches, malls, theaters, etc.? The active shooter is more likely to be a student, or former student, than someone in bad “Middle Eastern” costume wear. We’re never going to get real until we get real about our prejudices.

Egyptian-American actor Zeeko Zaki, a co-star in CBS’ “FBI,” is the first Muslim to star as a hero in a network television series. He tells Esquire his character had been written as Latino. 

When Dick Wolf changed the character from a Latino FBI agent to an Egyptian-American who speaks Arabic, the tenor of the program changed. His background figured prominently in the first season, and he’s even referenced 9/11. Needless to say, it surely must be a relief to play someone other than the stereotyped “terrorist,” the same way black and Latino players were relegated to gangbanger, drug dealer or sidekick/servant roles for decades before Hollywood slowly started to notice that people of color could play something other than criminals or the downtrodden.

But one representative isn’t enough.

Eighteen years later, we can’t keep ramping up the jingoistic shared hatred and expect to feel soothed or saved. We can’t continue to pull people like my niece out of airport lines for “random” checks of bomb-making residue on her hands (!), or harass women wearing hijabs (there was quite the uptick after the 2016 presidential election, wonder why), or even double down on other brown-skinned people, adding to the cancer that is infecting our moral sensibilities.

Eighteen years ago, many families’ lives were destroyed and a nation was plunged into chaos and uncertainty and fear. But if we continue to let hatred rule the way we deal with our grief and confusion, then the hatred that sent those thousands to their deaths still wins.

And we haven’t learned a damn thing.

 

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