Beyond the mourning

By now you’ve probably seen the planes crashing into New York City’s twin towers all over again. And again. And again. You’ve seen and listened to the city’s firemen as they reflected on the horrors of their rescue efforts a year ago. You’ve heard the tearful stories of so many average citizens who were on the streets below when they heard the terrible sound. You’ve heard the heart-rending stories of the husbands, wives, sons, daughters and friends of the thousands of people who were killed in the attacks. And if we’re lucky, there have been no new tragedies to mourn.

All this emotion is inevitable, and it is understandable. For years to come, Sept. 11 will no longer be just another day on the calendar. It is now a day of remembrance. In that spirit, it is important to remember — and to never forget — what being an American is supposed to be all about.

Without that knowledge, the simple commemoration of the day when so many lives were lost is essentially useless and somewhat morbid. After all, it was who we are as Americans that came under attack on that day. If we fail to recognize and appreciate who and what we are as a nation, then what have we really learned from the attack except that terrorism is a bad thing?

Being an American means acknowledging that you are no more American — and no less — than any other American anywhere. That means you don’t get to judge other Americans based on whether or not they appear to fit some narrow-minded criteria of what you might think a “real” American is supposed to be. If someone is an American citizen, then that settles it. Guilty until proven innocent isn’t the American way. At least it’s not supposed to be.

I do realize that for some of you this is elementary stuff, and that’s fine. It should be elementary. Unfortunately, elementary or not, there are still far too many folks out there who just can’t seem to grasp the concept of what today’s America really is — or who refuse to grasp it.

As soon as it was discovered that the attack was masterminded by an Arab Muslim who hated the United States, virtually all Arabs — and anyone who looked like an Arab — immediately came under suspicion. The media carried accounts of Arab children in America being taunted at their schools while their parents were enduring harassment and worse as they attempted to go about their daily lives. To those who felt it was their duty as Americans to make life hell for all Arabs and Muslims, it didn’t much matter whether they got it right. In other words, any Arab would do. It was an Arab who planned the attack, so by twisted logic all Arabs were therefore considered sympathetic to Osama bin Laden’s cause. There was no such thing as an Arab individual in the minds of the self-appointed, self-righteous accusers, only an evil Arab mass.

To try and break through the stereotype, many Arab citizens right here in metro Detroit began placing flags in their home and business windows and otherwise going out of their way to demonstrate their patriotism.

In an earlier column, I wrote about an Arab-operated filling station where the display of Detroit-logo caps was replaced with a display of red, white and blue ones. Caps with little flags stitched on the side. Caps with huge flags stitched on the side. Caps that were a flag all by themselves.

I am hardly the first to have pointed this out, but in the days and weeks after Timothy McVeigh’s act of terrorism in Oklahoma City, there was hardly a rush to begin inspecting all clean-cut young white American males. White males did not suddenly feel compelled to prove their patriotism; there were no reports of young white males being harassed simply because they were young, white, male and kind of resembled Timothy McVeigh. There were no reports of white males being forced to get off airplanes prior to departure because too many of the other passengers were terrified at the mere sight of them.

So if young white American males were not considered suspect after what McVeigh did, why didn’t that same innocent-until-proven-guilty mind-set apply to American Arabs? The answer, which is racism, is obvious. Still, the lesson that should be learned from this disparity in how one group of people was treated vs. another needs to be emphasized repeatedly; an American is an American is an American. Not all Americans are white and not all religious Americans are Christians. There’s nothing wrong with that because there’s nothing more American than that kind of diversity.

As Americans — which means all of us — it makes sense to mourn on Sept. 11. Anger, even rage, makes sense. It makes sense to want to do whatever can possibly be done to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. It makes sense to want to have someone to blame for what happened. What doesn’t make sense is to allow ignorance to steer America toward taking the easy way out of all this, because then we will never get out. Racism is the easy way out. Racism allows those who practice it the perverse luxury of not having to bother with the inconvenience of judging people individually. When you’re a racist you can just write off entire groups of people on sight and be done with it. No muss, no fuss.

Until those same groups of people begin writing you off in the same way. That’s what Osama bin Laden did. He and his followers have judged America — and Americans — as guilty. The only way they could possibly have a clear conscience after murdering 3,000 innocent people is to have fooled their consciences into believing that we are all the same, all evil, and all deserving of death.

So the mourning and reflection are OK. But just remember that it takes all Americans to make up America, and until we realize that fact we will continue to be even more vulnerable than we were one year ago today. If we learned anything from bin Laden and his followers, it should be that we have enough enemies to worry about without having to be afraid of the enemies trapped in our own mirror.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]