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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Enough already ... time to put 9/11 to rest

After 9/11, it didn’t take a pundit to predict that an era of mindless repression of civil liberties would follow, falling especially hard on Muslim Americans. Our country is no different from any other in its profiling of minorities based on stereotypes, the susceptibility to panic and mob hysteria in times of crisis. Racial and ethnic "cleansing" has often been our impulsive reaction to perceived threats and our history is riddled with many examples.

When the frenzy subsides – and in some cases it takes the perspective of many generations - we repent, apologize to whatever group we have ravaged, and try to wipe the blood from our hands. We struggle to remember our treasured principles, the words that stick in our throats as we dutifully reclaim our pride in the better angels that we alternatively claim as our heritage. The problem is that history has shown that the longer it takes to return to reason, the deeper the scars on our culture. We still live with the scabrous heritage of historic discrimination against Black, native American, Jew, Nisei, and immigrants from many nations.

Today’s LA Times reports an incident that should make everyone cry, enough already. A family of Muslim Americans - a doctor, his wife and children, accompanied by his brother, a lawyer, and his wife and wife’s sister boarded an airplane in Orlando, Florida. The men were bearded, the women wore traditional head scarves. As they were seated, the women talked casually about which seats would be safest. Two teenage girls overheard the conversation, began a panic, fearing that these unusual looking people were going to take over the plane.

The entire family was removed from the flight, detained and questioned by the F.B.I. for hours. Once cleared, the airline still refused to book them on another flight.
The airline has issued an "apology" to the family and the others who were delayed by the "misunderstanding."

This is only the most recently reported of many such incidents. Innumerable indignities have been suffered by decent people in schools, work, travel, communities in the last eight years.

Should we wait for another generation to recognize and redress the wrongs? After 9/11, our government encouraged the frenzy, cynically using it to support their policy of "crusade" against "jihad." Our democracy fell for it, willingly demonizing the different among us, as we had done so many times in the past. The Patriot Act - as cynical a PR label as was ever slapped on a piece of repressive legislation - codified our acquiescence to fear.

The subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the irrational extension of the fear to apply to Hispanics (justified by the call to close our borders) and the emphasis on "homeland security" will be viewed by historians as akin to the roundups of Native Americans throughout the 19th Century, Germans in World War I, "radicals" during the "Red Scare" of the 1920's, Nisei in World War II.

Okay, maybe we could justify some sort of passionate over-reaction to the horrific event as human. Rage derived from fear and anger at acts of terrorism aimed by so few at so many innocent people, causing so much misery, is certainly understandable. But it is time to put an end to it.

I am reluctant to put yet another burden on President Obama’s plate. The expectations for "change" already may be too high and, again, it would not take a prophet to foresee disappointment if he fails be as enlightened as we wish him to be. Again, history provides a sad lesson for us. Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, all viewed as among the more principled of our leaders, each failed tests of leadership against discrimination against some group in their time.

Yet, as a man who has personally experienced the sting of racial and social distrust, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect Barack Obama to lead us in a different direction, at least to take the first baby steps to roll back the insanity of the last eight years to bring about some sort of equilibrium when it comes to our view of who are our "enemies" and how we should confront them while not becoming them.