I will never forget the flood of emotions that I experienced on September 11, 2001, and the days that followed.
If I’ve learned anything in my seven decades, it’s that remembering is important. Especially so, in this case, both because the trauma of that period irrevocably shaped America and its foreign and domestic policies and because of the way the horrors of that day impacted my community.
As almost a third of Americans today either weren’t alive or old enough to remember or were not yet there (because they’ve come as immigrants since then) when 9/11 happened, recalling that period and considering its lessons are important.
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For me and millions of other Americans, September 11 began as just another Tuesday morning. I was stuck in traffic, stopped at a light when I noticed a woman in the car next to me signalling for me to roll down my window. As I did, she shouted, “Did you hear what happened to the World Trade Centre?”
“No,” I said, “my car radio isn’t working.”
“A plane just crashed into the building!” She yelled. “My father works there, and I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
Then the light changed, and she moved on. I never saw her again and don’t know what happened to her father, but I will never forget the look of sheer terror on her face.
By the time I got to my office, everyone was watching television. That was when the second plane hit. Like my colleagues, I was stunned and transfixed by the images of planes slicing through the walls of the World Trade Centre, people jumping from the buildings, and finally of the two towers collapsing into a pile and disappearing forever.
It was a horror, never to be forgotten.
Soon, the nightmare became personal. My daughter worked near the Pentagon, which had also been a target. She called frightened and also concerned for me because the White House, just two blocks away from my office, appeared to be another likely target.
Building security, on orders from the local police, came to evacuate us around noon. We refused to leave because there was too much work to do. Although no one knew yet for certain the identity of the hijackers, speculation was rife that Arabs were involved, and Arab American community leaders were already phoning us for advice and support.
They wanted to know how to respond to the inevitable media requests and the threats that were sure to come.
From early calls and emails, we could see signs of a brewing backlash. During this time, my office came under police protection because of the flood of hate mail and death threats. Some were personal: “Jim, you towelhead. Death to every Arab. We’ll slit your throat and kill your children.” Others were more general.
One month later, I was asked by the chair of the US Civil Rights Commission to report on the extent of hate crimes and violence that occurred in the weeks after 9/11. In my testimony, I catalogued hundreds of documented hate crimes against Arab Americans, American Muslims, and those thought to be Arabs or Muslims. I noted that there had been seven murders as well as other acts of violence and threats of violence.
This backlash was frightening and profoundly unsettling to Arab Americans. As Americans, we too had been pained by the enormous tragedy that had been inflicted on our country. We too needed to mourn, but we were pulled away from our grieving and forced instead to look over our shoulders in fear because some struck out against us with hate, telling my community that, in effect, “You are not part of us.” This produced a double hurt.
I was angry, of course, at the threats and prejudice. But more than that, I was angry at the terrorists who had violated the openness and freedom of my country. They killed thousands of my fellow citizens. And in doing so, they also caused incalculable damage to the millions of Arab Americans and Muslims.
Each day, after the attack, as I read new reports detailing the activity of the hijackers leading up to 9/11, I was struck by how sinister it was that these men, armed with such insidious intent, were able to take advantage of the opportunities and almost naïve goodwill of so many Americans. The hijackers had found homes in which to live, schools that trained them, and they moved about without question, all the while planning their deadly mission.
How was it, I wondered, that as these hijackers were preparing to kill thousands, they weren’t moved to question their intended evil by the good they saw around them every day?
In the days and weeks that followed, the trauma never left. People remained in shock. The interviews with survivors and family members of those who had perished were both painful to watch and unforgettable. It was hard to think of anything else.
What was also striking and deeply moving were the acts of kindness. As our fellow citizens learned about the hate to which we had been subjected, many expressed sorrow and turned to us with offers of support. This too, I will never forget. Members of Congress called my office, and both the Senate and House passed resolutions of support, as did church groups and most major ethnic organisations. In the face of this, I came to realise that however great the backlash, we would be protected.
But here too, I felt pained. As undeserved as the hate had been, the kindness also seemed undeserved. I didn’t want to feel “other”. Nevertheless, the support was welcomed.
The final chapter of 9/11 was yet to be written. That, unfortunately, would be initiated by the Bush administration and the disastrous domestic and foreign policies they would implement in the years that followed, which also should never be forgotten; the consequences of these misguided policies continue to haunt us two decades later.