My coworker flung the conference room door open. "We're evacuating the office," he said. "The Pentagon has been hit." Time moved at a warped pace the morning of 9/11 as I ran up three flights of stairs in the Hart Senate Building to grab my cell phone. In the whirlwind of terror, being able to call my family seemed like the most important thing at the time, even if it meant a delayed exit from the building.
Outside was complete chaos: Senators and staff were scurrying in different directions, trying to find a safe place to go. As my then-boss Senator Russ Feingold led his staff away from the Capitol, I still remember the shock, confusion and urgent attempts to call loved ones on jammed cell phone lines. Then as the news confirmed the worst, and the towers fell, my heart sank for the victims and their families.
On September 11th, we were all simply Americans drawing strength from one another. We felt immense unity as a nation -- oblivious to race, religion or political party. That day, I was never more proud to be serving my country by working on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Liberty, freedom, and equality are the values that bind us together as Americans, and it was exactly those values that inspired me to work in government.
And that's why without hesitation, I boarded the Metro the next day. But suddenly I noticed passengers sizing me up, offering dirty looks and stares, wondering if I could be trusted. For the first time in my life, it didn't matter how American I was, or that I had devoted my career to public service. All these passengers saw was a brown, Muslim woman who represented something threatening and sinister.
In the following days, we all witnessed symbols of unity and courage -- elected officials stood shoulder to shoulder, regardless of party lines, on the steps of the Capitol, brave firefighters and citizens selflessly worked at ground zero to rescue victims, and everyday Americans showed compassion to strangers' tears. My colleagues inquired how I was doing and if my family was safe. America, it seemed, was tapping into the best parts of the human spirit, defying tragedy and staying strong during our collective loss. But while we saw greatness emerge from adversity, we also witnessed something insidious creep into our government.
Within days of the attack, Congress was busy creating new legal authority for the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Proposed legislation not only updated old laws to keep up with modern technology, but some proposals also harkened back to darker chapters of US history that smacked of Japanese American internment and the suspension of basic rights during the Civil War.
I was tasked with advising Senator Feingold on these proposals, including the USA PATRIOT Act, and to my horror, saw legislation that eroded our constitutional values slip into law with little protest or debate. Many elected officials simply felt pressure to do something after such a horrendous attack, and so voted for a bill they hadn't fully debated, much less comprehended.
There were also those who voted in favor of the PATRIOT Act knowing that there were sections that violated the Constitution. During the extraordinarily short time the bill was on the Senate floor, I explained to another Senator why certain sections were unconstitutional. Ironically, this elected official, who had sworn to uphold the Constitution, looked me straight in the eyes and stated, "I don't care." I was stunned.
I was born in America, trained as a lawyer, and had been inspired to work in government to serve and uphold our constitutional values, protecting the rights of all Americans. Now, the law allowed the government to trample on Americans' rights simply because of their faith. Wanting to do more to protect freedom for all Americans, regardless of faith, I left the Hill and helped to launch Muslim Advocates, the first and only legal advocacy and educational organization serving American Muslims.
In the six years of our existence, Muslim Advocates has worked with the Department of Justice, the White House and congressional offices to educate and promote solutions that keep our country safe while also upholding the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to all Americans. We also educate American Muslims about the law and their rights and seek to protect those rights through the legal and policymaking process.
We are at a pivotal moment in our nation's history, a moment that will define our generation as one that upheld our values, or succumbed to fear. Now, more than ever, we need all Americans to come together, united against hate and fear, and to stand up for freedom. No doubt, 9/11 changed me, my colleagues on the Hill and our nation forever, but I am hopeful that the sense of unity and shared values Americans felt so strongly in the immediate aftermath of that tragic day will eventually prevail, and that we as a nation will once again be the beacon of freedom for all.
Farhana Khera is the president and executive director of Muslim Advocates.