Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of September 11th. I’ve never been in New York City for any of the previous 11th’s so, though my original plan for yesterday was to hang around my apartment and try to find places for things that are still sitting on my floor after three weeks of living here, I decided to go out into the city for a few of the events that were happening.
The first place I went was a march that was being staged in support of the Islamic center being built near Ground Zero. I have not (and probably still won’t) pay earnest attention to the debate around the center (clarification: it is a community center, and not a mosque). When I first heard about it, I thought, “Well, that seems a little insensitive, but whatever.” But as time has gone on, and the rhetoric and invective has gotten more inflammatory and racist, it’s become clear to me that to side with the people who are against the center is to ally myself with a whole lot of people that I don’t want to be allies with, and to ally myself with an indefensible position.
The hijackers on September 11th believed firmly in “us vs them.” They believed that they had the monopoly on truth, on divine guidance, and in the arrogance of their moral bankruptcy, they committed the atrocity of a generation. They believed that America is befouled, that we hate them, and that in death, they could destroy us as a country or elevate Islam as a religion/nation. They believed, in short, that they were fighting a holy war.
I want to prove them wrong. And I don’t think they were wrong simply in their actions; I think their conclusions, their thought processes that led them to this action, was wrong, every step of the way. If I want to prove them wrong, I have to make sure that I am never like them. I have to prove to myself that being that hateful is a choice–and then make sure I’m making the opposite one.
I was taught in elementary school that America is a melting pot, a place where anybody can find opportunity, where anybody can find a voice, where freedom of speech and religion are basic, inalienable rights. I was taught that these things are the foundation of our democracy. As I got older, I also learned all sorts of times when these ideals weren’t true and were allowed to be corrupted–but that, I think, is all the more reason to keep holding them up, keep looking at them, and make sure we never violate them or take them for granted.
During World War II, we imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, for fear that they would become spies and sabotage the American war effort. We told ourselves we had to do this to preserve our national security, to protect America. But “protecting America,” particularly in this century, has never been about protecting our borders. It’s been about protecting the ideas that make this country what it is. That America needed protection from the Japanese-Americans living here has been soundly debunked; the Japanese-American community has received several apologies and some even received reparations. And America, it is hoped, learned the lesson that when we violate our national ideals in the name of fear and in hope of safety, we end up with none of the above. (As Ben Franklin famously tried to warn us in 1775, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”)
The Irish have also been accused of debasing and corrupting America. Now fully one-third of Americans have Irish surnames and I think our country is stronger for it. Jews and Germans and Italians and Catholics and Africans and other Asians, too, have been accused of debasing our national moral character. Commentators say, “Would these things that are being said about Muslims be allowed if the people saying them were talking about blacks or Jews?” without ever bothering to point out that we have said those things about blacks and Jews, and nobody blinked an eye: not until we learned better.
So now it’s the Muslims’ turn to bear the brunt. (And Latinos’, but that’s another post.)
Never mind that we hear these accusations over and over again, with merely a different group in the crosshairs, and none of it has ever proved true.
Never mind that a Muslim has never violated anybody else’s right to the First Amendment, or even implied that the Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s written on–no, it’s only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who seem to do that, who argue that this group or that group “hates America,” and in the name of protecting it, is perfectly willing to destroy what makes living here worth it in the first place.
We don’t get to pick who is protected by inalienable rights. By definition, everybody is, or nobody is. So when I see White Anglo-Saxon Protestants doing what they’ve always done, repeating the same sad acts of fear and regression that our fathers and grandfathers perpetuated, my choice, now and forever, is this: I will not be the white person who acts this way. I think our national character is stronger and better than this. I will not allow terrorists to win and convince us that our country is in danger.
The political power structure benefits when we avoid each other and divide ourselves into factions. Fundamentalists (of all religions) do too. And so do terrorists. All kinds of people want to claim to speak for me.
So who am I going to ally myself with?
I’m going to ally myself with Jesus, and the Buddha, with Martin Luther King, Jr and John Adams and Ben Franklin. I’m going to ally myself with people who have stood up against war and hatred and fear. “We get your message loud and clear, but we refuse to live in fear,” sang the Bouncing Souls, and they’re right. I choose to believe that we are all us. I ally myself with those who refuse to let their fear get the best of them.
I may be wrong. But at least I’m in good company.
“There is a war going on for your mind. Professional wrestlers and vice presidents want you to believe them. The desert sky is their bluescreen, they superimpose explosions, they shout at you: ‘Pay no attention to the men behind the barbed curtain, nor the craters beneath the draped flags. Those hoods are there for your protection and the meteors these days are the size of corpses.’ There is a war going on for your mind.” –from the album Fight With Tools by the Flobots
More succinctly: why did I show up at the protest to support the community center near ground zero?
Because I want this kid to be able to walk through JFK someday and not get stopped by security every single time.
Because I want these kids to be able to live in the same America that I live in: one whose borders may not be safe (no country’s are), but whose ideals certainly are.
The march itself was pretty tame, as marches go. I generally show up at political actions woefully unprepared (no political t-shirt, no sign, no bullhorn), and yesterday was no exception (though I did remember my camera). The New York Times reported this morning that gatherings of pro- and anti-Islamic center rallies were kept apart with “police barricades and officers,” but I personally didn’t see any anti-Muslim protests or gatherings. I saw a couple of ranting ravers, but that was it. It’s not like the point was to win hearts and minds and then immediately go break ground on the center. There were speakers, we walked around the block (more or less), and that was it. But it was important to me to show up, to be counted amongst the many people who are anti-racist, and for the country and the world to see that the voices of those who are opposed to the center are not the only ones worth listening to.
And it looks like a few other people agree with me.
*Heads up: if you want to see the rest of the pictures I took yesterday, check out my photography page.