I often write an article on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks reflecting on the impact that tragedy had on my country and my community.
I believe that it is important we never forget how we felt on that day and the days that followed.
In a piece I wrote within days of the attack in 2001, I noted how Arab Americans were overcome by a flood of conflicting emotions.
We were horrified by the devastation and enormous loss of life. We were shaken by stories of the innocents who lost their lives. We were angry at the murderers who had committed these heinous acts.
But within hours after the attacks, we were forced to experience fear and isolation when the backlash began – fear because we received threats, and isolation because we were pulled away from the collective grief we were sharing as Americans and forced to look over our shoulders to protect ourselves and families.
We also ultimately came to feel gratitude as so many of our fellow citizens came to our defence and protected us.
This year, I didn’t write a column about 9/11. Instead, I made do with a few tweets recalling the events and emotions of the day. I am now compelled to write because of the brazenly insensitive and cavalier comments about 9/11 posted by Paul Krugman, a respected Nobel prize-winning New York Times opinion columnist.
In a series of tweets, Krugman wrote the following:
“Overall, Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which all too easily happened. And while G W Bush was a terrible president, to his credit he tried to calm prejudice, not feed it.”
“Daily behaviour wasn’t drastically affected. True, for a while people were afraid to fly: my wife and I took a lovely trip to the US Virgin Islands a couple of months later, because air fares and hotel rooms were so cheap. But life returned to normal fairly fast.”
Krugman’s brazen dismissal of the painful aftermath of the attacks on the Arab and Muslim communities was so hurtful and offensive that I, and many others, felt obliged to respond.
Instead of being chastened, the next day Krugman doubled down in yet another series of tweets still trying to make his case that the backlash wasn’t as severe as it might have been.
Because of who he is and the potential impact of what he writes, I cannot let Krugman’s whitewashing of the post-9/11 period go unchallenged. Because we must never forget the damage done to my community and to our nation’s institutions by Bush Administration policies, I need to set the record straight.
In the aftermath of the attacks, acts of hatred and death threats were frequent and frightening. My office logged 800 pieces of hate mail and phone messages in just the first few days following 9/11. Only a few hours after the planes hit the World Trade Centre, I received my first death threat. A caller to our office left a message stating, “Jim, you towel head, all Arabs must die. We will slit your throat and kill your children.”
It was the first of many. My daughter and a nephew also received threats, as did my brother John, whose office received two bomb threats. This was just what happened to my family.
My office began to receive reports from Arab Americans across the country of threats, harassment, and acts of discrimination.
We researched, verified, and documented each case. In testimony before the US Commission on Civil Rights, delivered one month after 9/11, I reported the threats of violence and actual acts of violence and harassment committed against my community and those who were perceived to be Arab or Muslim.
But these cases tell only part of the story. While Krugman was correct to observe that President George W Bush cautioned Americans against singling out Arabs and Muslims for blame, he fails to note the extent to which Bush’s Department of Justice implemented policies which did exactly that.
As for Krugman’s statistics showing that the increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes was real was still significantly less than those against Blacks, all I can say is “nonsense.” In the first place, the FBI statistics he cited don’t include anti-Arab hate crimes. At the time, the government didn’t report them.
Second, the firings, denial of housing, etc. aren’t considered hate crimes. Third, since the Black community is more than 10 times larger than Arab Americans, using this comparison to minimise our pain is both ludicrous and hurtful.
So, Paul Krugman, before you write about this period, speak to us first. Maybe you don’t remember what it was like for us, we, on the other hand, can’t ever forget.