9/11 -- It's Personal
Updated: May 25
Today, we remember and mourn a day indelibly etched in our collective memories. I was living in Racine, Wisconsin, when terrorists flew commercial jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and passengers aboard another jet lost their lives thwarting a fourth attack. My daughters were six, 10 and 14 at the time, and I can remember assuring all three, but especially my middle daughter, who was more anxious about the continuing threat than the others, that Racine was nowhere near the top of any terrorist target list. Despite my words, I remained nervous. Everyone did.
Reasonable Fears Any reasonable human being was horrified by the events of that day, but my fears escalated in the days that followed as reasonable human beings let their fears drive behaviors that would have been considered unacceptable in any other environment. On a broad level, I am speaking of the kind of en masse faux patriotism that drives people to accept the abject violation of their constitutionally protected rights known as the Patriot Act. I am speaking of how it suddenly became, not just OK but weirdly comforting, for Congress to sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps and for “God Bless America” messages to appear on digital Interstate bulletin boards and municipal memos. Never mind the separation of church and state or the fact that religious zealotry was at least partly responsible for 9/11. The sentiment became group-speak, echoed on school and business marquees (“Chicken wings $1.99 | God bless America.” “XXX videos and delights | God bless America”). On an even more personal level, I am talking about actions that made me fear for the safety of my children and my husband.
Unreasonable Actions In an ostensible show of patriotism and solidarity for the fallen, the Friday after 9/11 was declared “Red, White and Blue Day” at the combination middle and high school my two older daughters attended at the time. Students were “invited” to wear flags and flag-colored clothing to school. I was appalled. My father had fought in World War II to ensure that no one had to wear yellow stars to show their otherness or white stars on a blue field to show their inclusion in the mainstream. But my girls are biracial. Their Caucasian-Asian features defied easy categorization at a time when people seemed determined to segregate the world into Us vs. Them, and would undoubtedly be viewed by some as “other.” I feared to my core for their safety – and for the safety of their friends, with names like Abdallah, who were also “other” – and so, despite my misgivings, I made sure they left the house that day dressed in red, white and blue clothing. I’m not proud of that choice, but I do believe it was prudent.
Forced Patriotism I am a patriot – happy to have had the pure good fortune to be born in a country, which prior to 9/11, led the world in human rights, a country where a free and public education was available to all, where free and public libraries allowed even the least among us to access knowledge and higher learning, a country where opportunities abounded, a country where we could question and even mock our leaders with impunity and where almost nothing could be censored. Never did I associate flag waving – or wearing – with patriotism, especially when it was essentially a command performance. My aversion to this type of forced patriotism grew when I lived for more than three years in Taiwan, a country that was, at the time, under martial law. At schools, at movie theaters and other public gatherings, people would stand while the national anthem was played and watch at attention as the rays of wisdom from Sun Yat Sen’s “Three Principles of the People” radiated from Taiwan to the farthest reaches of Mainland China. When patriotism is forced, it is not patriotism, it is compliance. Seeing America start to replace true patriotism with forced compliance made me more afraid for my homeland than the planes or the terrorists did.
Foreigner, Go Home Within days of 9/11, my husband received a message taped to his windshield at the Bosch plant where he worked: “Foreigner go home” (sic). On the day the planes hit, my husband had been a naturalized U.S. citizen for more than a decade, and all three of our children were born here, so he was home. To become a U.S. citizen, in addition to swearing allegiance to this country, he passed a test that I expect many if not most U.S.-born citizens would struggle with (One of the questions: Name the original 13 colonies). Besides recognizing my husband as an immigrant to this country, I believe the writer of that note probably also assumed he was Muslim. I’m not suggesting it’s more appropriate to tell Muslim-Americans to “go home,” but my husband is from a majority-Buddhist country and considers himself a non-practicing Buddhist, so associating him by race or creed with the 9/11 attackers showed a profound level of ignorance.
In more recent days, as cries of “Foreigner, go home” have become more common again, I look back and find myself thinking that the 9/11 terrorists may not have died in vain, for their message of hate still divides us. And it’s still personal.