Like most people in this country I remember distinctly what I was doing on September 11, 2001. I was on my way back from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. I was sitting in BJ’s at the Johannesburg airport–that’s tucked between the “Juicy Lucy” and the “Chicken Licken” franchises there. The South Africans seemed to have perfected the U.S. gimmick of cutesy names for food franchise business names…but I digress.
I saw something on a nearby television monitor that made me spring to my feet. It was about 3:30 p.m. local time–9:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time–and it was a Tuesday. Over and over again CNN was showing an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. Panic and confusion were the order of the day, soon even in South Africa.
The White House and the U.S. Capitol were evacuated. Another airliner crashed into the Pentagon. My flight scheduled to leave for New York four hours later, along with tens of thousands of others around the world was canceled.
Disbelief swept through the Johannesburg airport as all TV monitors in the place were soon showing the airplanes, crashing into the buildings. Over and over and over. In that twinkling of what could have been a movie special effects artist’s eye, the world, as I had known it, was turned upside-down.
For the next four days thousands of people at airports all around the world were stranded in the limbo-world of security, diplomacy, official ignorance, commerce, and increasingly scarce hotel rooms as more and more passengers piled into international transit points while no one already there was permitted to travel to the United States.
I soon realized I was one of the lucky ones. I was looking for lost luggage, not a lost loved one. I was trying to find out when I might fly home, not lined up to get into a homeless shelter in Manhattan.
Funny, protected from potential European or Asian adversaries or competitors by Planet Earth’s two largest oceans–The Pacific and the Atlantic–the American corner of the world had been a fortress, and in the twinkling of an eye it was laid open, vulnerable.
This World Trade Center thing, hit Americans literally in the gut, as the world watched American invulnerability crumble in a fiery heap along with a great deal of American pride. How could anyone get away with such an audacious attack against fortress America, and in broad daylight at that? Who would dare perpetrate such a hateful act against the world’s only remaining superpower?
In the blood of the innocent dead: men women and children of all colors, all religions; of 62 nationalities including hundreds of Muslims; the National Security establishment, those who were responsible for safety, for government policies, they washed their hands of every hint of culpability. They blamed radical Muslims and there would be no political price to pay: no important constituency to offend.
Another casualty that resulted from that horrendous sneak attack on America was American civil liberty itself. And frankly, most folks don’t object to the new world of “Big Brother” in their lives at every turn, in exchange for a little security.
In the past, the targets of this same mob mentality have been African Americans, some who fought for this country in World War I and World War II only to come home and sometimes be lynched while still wearing their military uniforms; and Japanese-Americans who had their land taken and were sent to concentration camps during WWII; and Latinos in America who were attacked on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1940s by sailors in uniform just home from war in what were called the “Zoot Suit Riots.”
Now it was, and for a decade has been Muslims in the cross hairs. Draconian laws, Congressional hearing after Congressional hearing, to investigate the “radicalization” of all things Islamic, these anti-Islamic tactics have taken on a life of their own, even invading the presidential campaign trail for almost four years now.
The most pressing question in my mind is whether or not, after the painful price that has been paid in blood and treasure, wars all over the Muslim world, and tens and tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and thousands more soldiers killed and maimed: are we any safer now, than we were on Monday Sept. 10, 2001 when the world was an altogether different place?