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After 9/11, Americans united to fight terrorists. Why can't we unite to fight a virus? | Weathersbee

For a moment two decades ago, America wasn't red or blue. It was red, white and blue. Together.

Or, at least it seemed that way.

That moment happened on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists rammed planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and forced another plane, Flight 93, to crash in a field in western Pennsylvania.

The smoke and debris that rained down in New York City on that Indian summer day, along with the ash, appendages and bodies of nearly 3,000 Americans, shattered any sense that distant shores or national defense was a shield from terrorist acts.

Still, in that horrific aftermath, America was one.

Around the nation, people gathered for candlelight vigils and other memorials. Strangers united as families tend to do during funerals; to mourn lost loved ones and, if those loved ones met an untimely end through murder or malfeasance, to seek justice.

“In that moment, it’s not what kind of American you are. We are all Americans,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, executive director of the Nashville-based American Muslim Advisory Council, which oversees Tennessee. Like millions of others, Mohyuddin watched much of the tragedy on live television.

“Before the second [twin] tower fell, they showed all those first responders and people walking towards the towers saying they were going to help, no matter what…

“The whole world was watching. It wasn’t a matter if you were an American, you were a human being, and the whole world was at one, unifying over this horrific event, this tragedy of so many people losing their lives in such a violent way.”

Yet it wasn’t long before that collective grief and fear morphed into hate and dysfunction.

It wasn’t long before some Americans began to blame all Muslims for the attacks. Wasn’t long before the scapegoating led to a rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

Crimes which, according to the FBI, are five times higher today than they were before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

And, just as quickly as Mohyuddin, whose organization represents Muslims in Memphis as well, felt the unity, she felt the hate.

“It wasn’t until the coming days, after the tragedy, that my whole identity as a Muslim American was being questioned,” said Mohyuddin, who, along with other Muslims, have struggled to fight attempts by GOP lawmakers to ban Sharia law - which would, under certain versions, all but outlaw Muslims' attempts to practice their religion.

“And it wasn’t just me being a Muslim, but anyone perceived as being a Muslim…Muslim has become a very racialized category. Anyone who is brown, or from the Middle East, or South Asian, was targeted…the first person to die of a hate crime after 9-11 was a Sikh in Arizona…

“We were being treated as outsiders who had to prove how American we were. Before 9-11, that didn’t happen…”

That happened largely because Americans are image-driven people, and tend to respond to faces more than facts.

After Sept. 11, the face of that evil wasn’t just that of Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the attacks from Afghanistan and who was killed by the Obama administration in 2011, but of all Muslims and Middle Easterners.

Such demonization made it easier for President George W. Bush’s administration to wage a trillion-dollar war on Iraq in 2003, one that lasted for eight years, on the wafer-thin premise that the U.S. needed to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction.

No matter that Iraq had zilch to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The thing that I come away with is that the unity that everyone likes to talk about, on that day, was built on the demonization of Muslims,” said Charles McKinney, Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

“…And then we used that unity to chart a militaristic course that led to more problematic policies being passed by the Congress…what we wound up doing is misappropriating the energy around some potential unity.

“If there was some sense of national unity, it was quickly squandered by military intervention that literally had no end in sight…the demonization of one of the world’s largest religions was done under the pretense of keeping us safe.”

Sadly, two decades after those attacks, too many Americans still haven’t learned how seeking an image to respond to, or a group of people to blame, does nothing to preserve freedom or life.

This is painfully obvious with the ongoing war against COVID-19.

Unlike bin Laden and al Qaeda, COVID-19 isn’t a terrorist. It has no planner nor does it shares terrorists' psychological goal, which is, according to Powers, is to make the enemy show its true face to the world.

It’s a virus that simply seeks a host to live.

Yet, sadly, instead of seeing the coronavirus as the enemy, many Americans see the doctors and immunologists who developed a vaccine to stop its advance, and members of President Joe Biden’s administration who are encouraging vaccinations, as the real threats.

Instead of seeing the exhausted and exasperated nurses and doctors, and the unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelming emergency rooms and intensive care units, they see liberals and elites who, in their minds, are pushing vaccines and in-school masking to gain control over their lives.


And just as the Bush administration exploited fears and Islamophobia ginned up by the Sept. 11 attacks to lead the U.S. into costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opportunistic Republican politicians are exploiting the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers to attain political goals.

Some, like Gov. Bill Lee, are overruling local school districts who are mandating masks to keep schoolchildren safe, an executive order that the federal court recently put on hold. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is blocking money from school board members in two school districts who are mandating masks, as a court order said they could.

DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are even blaming undocumented immigrants for the surge in COVID-19 infections – even though no evidence backs that up.

But hey, any image to attach to a problem works – especially when the image is one of brown or Black people.

The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is, undeniably, a time to reflect on the lives that were lost and to embrace those who are still grappling with the trauma of that day.

But the challenge remains for Americans to learn how unity that can lead to a stronger nation can be squandered by stereotypes and fear-driven politics.

Because if Americans keep seeing each other as the enemy even when it comes to beating a lethal pathogen with measures recommended by Americans, this nation will never beat terrorists; terrorists for whom at least one major tool, endless war, obviously doesn’t work.

In that sense, Americans will have handed the terrorists a victory; one that will come from the obsession to find a scapegoat.

And not the will to beat a virus.

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