By Rehan K. Hasan and Rosemary Harris Lytle
This week, the country reflects on the 10-year anniversary of the four tragic and devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. All told, nearly 3,000 people died. What happened can never be diminished. We all lost something that day – loved ones, innocence, trust, freedoms. Our world changed.
But was it 9/11 that changed our lives or our reaction to it?
Because of what happened on September 11, 2001, Muslims and others in this country have been branded terrorists; guilty by ethnicity or appearance, profiled at every airport, detained on meaningless and unlawful charges, violated by official government intrusion and surveillance; an entire community ostracized and demonized by law enforcement, by Homeland Security, by the Transportation Security Administration, which didn’t even exist until shortly after those twin towers went down.
So many lives – and liberties – infringed upon.
According to a Pew Research Center survey released last month, 43 percent of the Muslim American respondents said they had personally experienced harassment in the past year. The survey also said that 52 percent complained that their community is singled out by government for surveillance every single day. That doesn’t even include the intrusions the rest of us have faced: privacy violations, whole body imaging as we walk into federal, state buildings, being intimidated by cops in riot gear at any politically charged public event. Our police became militarized, our privacy shredded, and our appearances- from our clothes to our very pigment-subject to suspicion.
Looking back in our history, we see other sad examples of our reaction to tragedies and change and the violations of civil rights and civil liberties that resulted. We look at the change brought about by the end of slavery and see the reaction: rampant lynching and Jim Crow laws designed to turn back the freedom that the end of slavery had insured. We look at the tragedy of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and see our reaction: more than one hundred thousand guiltless Japanese Americans legally held captive by our government at West Coast camps.
It’s a horrible history.
What has happened to Muslim Americans seems just as sinister, just as inhumane, just as intrusive of our rights and freedoms –even without burning crosses and barbed wire fences — because in the name of defending the U.S. and all that we stand for, democracy, love of country, etc., we have used the 9/11 attacks to dehumanize and place in peril again the rights of an entire group of people. We seem to have forgotten that we must always – especially in times of national challenge and change – vigilantly uphold our core values. We seem to have forgotten that when we violate the freedoms of one group, the freedoms of all groups are at risk.
We seem to have forgotten that discriminating against Muslim Americans, those who are Middle Eastern or South Asian and are citizens and residents of this country is unconstitutional, unfair, and a violation of all the things we as Americans say we hold most dear. Tragedy isn’t new to America; it’s as old as America herself. But our fear of terrorism has created new tragedy – more fear. Fear of the hijab, the burka, the abaya, and the taqiyah doesn’t make us safer or move us forward. All it has done is cement what some have called “the turban effect.” In our Western world, the turban has come to symbolize terrorism. Woe be unto that person who shows up at the airport wearing a turban – though it happens all the time with discrimination shortly following.
As we pause to remember all those who lost their lives on 9/11, all those whose lives and livelihoods were forever changed, it bears repeating that we should remember something else, too.
We must not today repeat the mistakes of our past. Our history shows that when the government targets people based on race, ethnicity, belief, political activity and association instead of focusing on violence or violations of law, disastrous consequences for our democratic ideals follow. In the past, there was Jim Crow, Sedition Acts, McCarthy “blacklisting.” All of this betrayed American laws and values but did not make us any safer, not for a nanosecond.
So, this week we remember those who were lost. But let’s also remember that our laws and policies must not only keep our nation safe but must also treat people fairly – regardless of the color of their skin, their religion or the garment they choose to wear on their head.
Rehan K. Hasan is Chair of the Board of the ACLU of Colorado
Rosemary Harris Lytle is ACLU of Colorado Communications Director