For all the iconic images of that day, my clearest memory from 9/11 is of my friend B looking over his shoulder. B is a Palestinian-American. We were in the same class when the first tower fell.
The history teacher across the hall brought us the news, and that was when our teacher finally gave up on lecturing. He turned off the lights and put on the television. Not long after that, the second tower fountained apart into the dust cloud. Then came the reports that Palestinians were dancing in the streets.
B visibly flinched. Then, looking as hunted as I’ve ever seen anyone, he flashed a nervous glance over each shoulder. He curled forward in his seat, then slumped down and rested his head in the crook of his folded arms. I wanted to say something to him, but I don’t remember what. A lot has changed since then.
I grew up with Muslim kids. Anti-Muslim sentiment was always strange to me, because Muslims were not oddities where I grew up. But they all had experiences with it. A Pakistani girl I grew up with once told me a story about the day of the Oklahoma city bombing. She and her family were taking a flight out of O’Hare, and nobody knew anything about what had happened beyond the fact that there had been a terrorist attack. She said that a woman on her plane went into hysterics and started yelling at the flight attendants to take this girl and her family off the plane. She was terrified that there were going to be more terrorist attacks, and the Pakistanis looked like terrorists to her. Everyone else just stared at them.
I do not know what was going through other Muslims’ minds that morning. I’d imagine the same horror, but with even more apprehension and sense of loss. But B was the only one from a place where people were openly rejoicing at the deaths of Americans. I felt sorry for how conspicuous and ashamed he must have felt. At the same time, I entertained dark visions of cluster bombs being dropped across Palestine, showering the dancers with their own limbs.
So I don’t know what I would have said to him. “I know you don’t feel that way,” or maybe, “We know you’re not one of them.” But would that even have been true? Was he only embarrassed by the behavior the Palestinians across the world, or was he also conflicted because he understood why they danced?
Ten years ago, the media framed America’s reaction as one of bewilderment and hurt confusion: “Why do they hate us?” It alighted on comforting answers. The basest response was that the terrorists hated us for our virtues. Freedom and economic opportunity drove terrorists crazy, because it interfered with their dream of establishing a global caliphate. In this formulation, the terrorist was a Grinch-like figure, flying passenger jets into Whoville because he could not stand their happiness.
The more liberal, and superficially more thoughtful response, was that they hated us for supporting dictators who pillaged their nations and crushed their dreams, and those dictators had played a masterful con game on their own people. They convinced these angry young Muslims that Israel and its American ally were responsible for all their ills. 9/11 was a case of misdirected anger. The root evil was corrupt regimes, and America’s acquiescence to them.
Now, as we try and figure out why Faisal Shahzad packed a car full of combustibles and tried to attack his adopted country, we cannot afford to be so naive. It requires absolutely no imagination to come up with reasons why a Pakistani might want to take American lives. In the past we could always claim that Muslims who hated America did so because they did not understand us, or because they were misguided. Unfortunately, we have made our identity and our values appallingly clear.
The Obama administration has bombed Pakistan with impunity since taking office, and precious few elected officials or American citizens seem to care. Anonymous Pentagon spokesmen always claim that each drone strike kills “x number of militants,” as if we should not be concerned in the slightest that we might be terrorizing the civilian population of a country with which we are not at war by constantly bombarding it with missiles and bombs. We are told that the dead resulting from one of these strikes were all the enemy, but we have no way of knowing whether or not that is true. Our record in Afghanistan has hardly been confidence inspiring. The government is killing foreign citizens by remote, and offering no evidence to support its actions beyond, “Trust us.” As if credibility is something the military, intelligence, and foreign policy communities still possessed.
Drone strikes are merely the latest in a series of appalling accidents and intentional atrocities that have dogged our every step since 9/11, and at every turn public outrage has been muted. After 9/11 we heard so much about America’s tradition of tolerance, about the great respect American leaders had for that great religion, Islam, and how terrorists were evil for profaning its name. It was so important, as we sent troops into Afghanistan and prepared to send them into Iraq, that we make clear that we respected Islam and its practitioners. It was important that American Muslims not feel torn between their ethnic and religious identities on the one hand, and their civic identity on the other.
Then the Bush administration invaded Iraq on a mistaken assumption, and plunged the country into chaos and sectarian civil war. Evidence surfaced of sadistic detainee abuse. People suspected of being terrorists were swallowed up by the black-site prison system, basically kidnapped and sent somewhere to be tortured. The United States imprisoned people for years at Guantanamo Bay with scant evidence. Horrifying mistakes occurred, some of them caught on film like the Wikileaks video that came out several weeks ago, showing American troops killing civilians. American politicians routinely demand that terror suspects be stripped of their rights and treated like animals. A congressional candidate managed to win a major party primary after running one of the most horrifyingly racist ads I have ever seen.
What conclusions might an American Muslim reach when he sees firsthand how little anyone cares about Muslim lives, and how widespread and accepted anti-Muslim bigotry has become?
Nine years ago I wondered what B was thinking and feeling as he heard about his fellow Palestinians cheering and dancing as thousands of Americans perished. But now, I think I know. I don’t know how I would begin to look my Muslim friends in the eye. I certainly could not make the case that it was all a misunderstanding. They would know America far too well to fall for that.
But here is the thing: unless we start thinking about this stuff, unless we start pushing back against abuses committed in our name, and question the policies of a defense and foreign policy establishment that has blundered from one mistake to the next, we are going to fast reach a point where we are locked into a course that will antagonize Muslims at home and abroad. Because the moment “home-grown” Islamic terrorism ceases to be unusual, we will be unable to address any of the reasons why American Muslims might turn on the United States. An act of terrorism always confirms the policies that birthed it, because any retreat from those policies, no matter how counterproductive they might be, will be viewed as a victory for terrorists.
At that point, the cycle of violence is all but unbreakable. We kill in reprisal for our dead, and terrorists will step forward to kill in reprisal for theirs. That is the world in which we will grow old, and that is the world into which we will bring our children.