On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was asleep. Never being one for early rising unless I had to, I would be asleep for at least another two hours if my mother hadn’t called to tell me to turn on the TV. Minutes after her call my phone rang again, this time a friend bringing me news of the event. My television was on, and by then both towers of the World Trade Center had been hit.
Confused, stunned, speechless news anchors in New York City, wide-eyed with shock, were trying to sputter together coherent sentences that would sum up what they had seen happen live on their studio monitors. The country watched in real-time as the murder of nearly 3000 Americans was carried out, in broad daylight, by a group of men with box cutters and pilot’s licenses from flight schools in Florida. As the day went on speculation had already begun in the media that the United States was under terrorist attack. The last event of such proportions had happened six decades earlier, on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and pushed America into entering World War II.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt issued Executive Order Number 9066, part of which stated: “By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
With the attack on Pearl Harbor fueling longstanding racism against Japanese and Japanese-American residents in the West Coast, eventually between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. born citizens, were relocated to internment camps along the Pacific coast. About 62% of those interned were U.S. citizens. While it was not written into 9066 that only persons of Japanese ancestry were to be targeted, the Secretary of War and the Military Commanders interpreted the order’s implicit sense of urgency as a call for the most extreme measures, and acted accordingly, in violation of the Constitution.
On October 26, 2001 George W. Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT ACT, which was short for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” In Bush’s words the law was intended to “enhance the penalties that will fall on terrorists or anyone who helps them.” From the start the PATRIOT ACT faced it share of legal challenges. There were fears among many in legal communities around the country that it violated civil liberties and rights.
The PATRIOT ACT personally affected me twice: first, when I saw a list of countries around the world that were put on a terror watch list, and a second time when I received a letter to appear in person to be fingerprinted.
Among the countries on the Department of Homeland Security’s list was Bangladesh. And the list was more than just a seemingly innocuous catalog of nations: they were unanimously states where the majority of the population was Muslim, and citizens of those states that were in the United States who were not American citizens were being summoned to present themselves to be fingerprinted and entered into a database. I was still a citizen of Bangladesh at the time, and there was Bangladesh, alphabetically near the top of the watch list. As a citizen of a country billed by the DHS as a potential breeding ground of terrorists, because over 90% of Bangladeshis are Muslim, if I failed, or refused, to submit to the fingerprinting, it would suggest guilt, or at the very least the existence of some nefarious secret I was trying to keep covered.
There were those that didn’t appear, not out of guilt, but because they were good people in a bad spot. They were foreign students with expired visas who couldn’t afford to give up their jobs and risk being deported. Were they in violation of immigration laws by staying in the country on expired visas? Yes. Were their crimes even remotely as heinous as those of the 9/11 hijackers? No. They paled in comparison even to the monstrous crimes of George W. Bush and his administration in retaliation to the attacks.
And there were people with their documents in order that still faced trouble, simply by being from places that were the latest targets of America’s enmity.
One of the first stories I covered for the paper where I was working at the time was an evening of readings of poetry, drama, and various other spoken word performances bringing awareness to the growing targeting of Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim men. The PATRIOT ACT was being enforced. The rule of law was being executed. Just as it had been served when I, along with thousands of others across the United States, submitted to racial profiling, legitimized by calling it the rule of law.
Four days after 9/11, a former airplane mechanic, who once worked for Boeing, murdered a man in Arizona. The victim was a Sikh man whose beard and turban meant to his killer that he was a terrorist, and the killer in his patriotic rage sought revenge.
Despite the Saudi royal family’s decades-long close relationship with US presidents and intelligence agencies, the name of Osama Bin Laden, one of the royal family’s many scions, meant nothing to the general American populace. Within weeks of the attacks Osama Bin Laden became a household name across America, and Bin Laden’s position in US foreign policy tactics in the Middle East went from key ally to public enemy number one.
In the US, men of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent were the very image of the enemy. The PATRIOT ACT, like 9066, never specified whom to target, but the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other local, state, and federal authorities chose to go with their own interpretations, which echoed those of FDR’s Secretary of War and Military Commanders.
Following the debacle of the 2000 election and the Florida recount fiasco that haunted it, I was attuned to the unfolding drama, but knew nothing about the former Texas governor and the eventual “winner”. In a previous piece I alluded to the fact that George Bush was a recovered alcoholic and a born-again Christian. Of course, neither condition precludes him or anyone from being a president. Hitler never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. My observations about Bush were not meant to be disparaging, but I'm thoroughly suspicious of zealots of any stripe, of people citing any form of “divine intervention” for their acts and decisions. Little did I know in 2000 that, in the light of Bush’s perjury and illegal invasion of Iraq, getting sober would remain his most commendable and noble achievement. The man I got to know as president, and whose history I slowly learned, was a spectacular failure in life, and eight years of his presidency left the country broke, the tremors of which are being felt to this day.
There was in the interim the horrendous tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and Bush performed as he had in all endeavors throughout his life before: he made things worse.
Bush declared his “war on terror,” calling it a crusade against the forces of evil. A Christian leader using the word crusade to declare war on a Muslim state had historical implications that were seemingly not on Bush’s radar. He then directed this declaration of war on Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and marshaled the power of his office and that of the US intelligence community, to craft one of the biggest fabrications of the early 21st century, selling it wholesale to the American public, with help from the mainstream media: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. For that reason Iraq had to be bombed, and Hussein, yet another product of US foreign policy in the region, had to be removed from power. Never mind that for years his human rights violations, including the massacre of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja on March 16, 1988 by mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and Vx, had gone unchallenged, and his brutal regime was supported with arms, ammunitions, and dollars by the government of the United States. When the tyrant was finally deposed, lies were the only mechanism to make the case against him.
America is now in the post-9/11 era. It has different meanings for different people, different groups. In one way or another, everyone is affected. 9/11 re-defined America, and revitalized old cycles.
The insidious and demoralizing narrative unleashed by the powers that be in the aftermath of 9/11 set the stage for Donald Trump. Law-abiding people are supposed to jump to clear their names and denounce the actions of murderers just because they share with them a faith or a nationality. That is not proving devotion to America. It is allowing ignorance to determine an image I have to fit, and redo every time the cycle of xenophobia and racism recur.
“If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems,” said Howard Zinn, “but rather as love of one's country, one's fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
Here is an image I’m happy with: resister, critic, dissenter.
I wasn’t guilty back then, and if required again to give my fingerprints in violation of my Constitutional and civil rights, I will refuse.
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. Occasionally he likes writing nonfiction.