September 11, 2001 was a lovely day in Washington. I was driving to work, stopped at a red light. I looked over at the woman in the next lane because she was frantically motioning to me to roll down my window. As I did, she shouted "Did you hear? A plane flew into the World Trade Center. My father works there." The light changed to green and we drove off. I never saw her again. But I don't think I'll ever forget the fear in her eyes, just as I will always wonder if her father was one of the thousands who perished in that horror.
I arrived at my office in time to see the second plane hit and it became clear that this was no freak accident. We had been attacked. The nightmare began.
My daughter, whose office was a short distance from the Pentagon, was ordered to evacuate. She called, frightened and concerned. Before long, the police arrived at my building asking us to leave. Because we are just two blocks away from the White House, the entire area was being cordoned off. Since I was receiving calls from Arab Americans across the country seeking guidance and assistance, I asked if I could remain. They let me stay.
The next day, I arrived at my office and began to retrieve the phone messages that had been left overnight. Included among them was a chilling death threat—"Jim, all Arabs must die. I'll slit your throat and murder your children." It was not the first threat I had received, nor was it to be the last (in fact, three individuals who threatened my life after 9/11—including that caller—were found by the FBI, charged, prosecuted by the Department of Justice, convicted, and served jail time for their threats).
I was not alone. Arab Americans, and those who were presumed to be of Arab descent, experienced a terrifying onslaught of threats of violence and some were murdered in the backlash that followed the attacks. One month after 9/11, I was invited to testify before the US Commission on Civil Rights. My office had prepared a detailed collection of all the incidents of violence and threats that had occurred during that first horrible month. It told a frightening story of hate and the fear it had generated.
As I look back on that period, it was not the threats, themselves, that most troubled me, it was that the threats separated us, in a profoundly disturbing way, from our suffering compatriots. Like the rest of America, we too felt the pain of the loss of so many innocent lives. I remember watching the tragic scenes on CNN of crowds of New Yorkers standing up against the cordons that separated them from Ground Zero. Many carried pictures of loved ones who had been in the towers. They read "Missing"—hoping, against hope that missing, not deceased, was the right word to use. They cried when interviewed, and we cried with them.
Like the rest of America, we hurt and we needed time to be together, to be comforted and healed. This, we were denied. The threats said "You are not part of us" and so we were wrenched away and forced, instead, to look over our shoulders and seek protection.
Thankfully, protection was there, as were acts of kindness, large and small. Senators called to offer support. Organizations hosted events in solidarity. The DC police kept police cars in front our building for weeks. And I'll never forget the sweet woman, from the office next door, who came to our door one morning with brownies she had baked for my staff, saying "I know you guys aren't supposed to leave and go out for lunch, so I hope you'll enjoy these." All of this was so appreciated. But as wondrous as these displays of kindness were, they also felt as undeserved as the threats. We had done nothing to earn the hate, and nothing to earn the love.
It is in this same vein, that I sometimes wonder about the nineteen attackers. I think of how they must have come here to live for a time. I imagine the landladies who gave them housing. The storeowners who sold them groceries. The ordinary folks they met on the street who exchanged greetings with them. And all the while they were plotting murder with such evil in their hearts. They had taken advantage of our openness—to kill us. Their victims had done nothing to deserve their fate—they were just ordinary people who happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
While I often think about how much we lost on that day, in recent years, I have also come to reflect on how much we lost in the months and years that followed. Instead of building on the wave of international support for our country, the Bush Administration lost it all by arrogantly leading us into two disastrous wars that cost us dearly in lives and treasure, devastated Iraq and its people, weakened our military, and destroyed our standing world-wide. At the same time, they cavalierly embarked on a campaign which, in the name of security, eroded a broad range of fundamental constitutional protections.
The wounds of the wars are still with us—not least of which are the over 22 veterans who commit suicide each and every day. And the damage done to our Constitution remains and only grows more serious, given the absence of political leadership with the courage to point out that the dangerous practices put into place after 9/11 haven't made us more secure and should be scuttled.
Back then, 9/11 was called, "the day that changed everything". It surely did, and not in a good way. It is important to remember the horror, the loss, the pain, the fear, and, yes, even the anger; and to recall the solidarity and kindness that, for some, helped ease the sting. But, to be true to that fateful day, we must also reflect on the lessons we should have learned from terrible mistakes we made in 9/11's tragic aftermath—the wars, the shredding of our rights, and the crimes that were committed in the name of hate.