The aftermath of the Boston bombings reminded me of 9/11—but not for the reasons you might think.
South Asian, Arab, and Muslim communities mourned along with our fellow Americans after explosions rocked the finish line in Boston. But we also held our breath for a second attack—not one caused by bombs, but by assumptions and accusations. And, at the same time, we looked around and wondered what, if anything, America had learned in the decade since 9/11.
The American people have subtly matured in their thinking about immigration and the trade-off between liberty and security.
Shortly after the Boston bombings, a tow truck driver at a Seattle gas station asked me where I was from. I’ve been a U.S. citizen for 13 years, but he seemed to be asking something unrelated to my place of residence. I told him I was born in India. His next question was “Did you hear about the bombings?”
Why that progression? Why bring up the bombings immediately after learning this? Was he questioning my allegiances, making some unconscious connection between my dark skin, India, and people who might bomb our nation?
I shrugged it off but was immediately reminded of something that happened at a gas station in Mesa, Ariz., shortly after 9/11. A deranged gunman shot at a Sikh man, in part because of his turban and beard, shouting "I stand for America all the way."
In the wake of 9/11, hate crimes hit Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities like a barrage of shrapnel. After Boston, there were fewer hate crimes, but still too many—enough to strike us all with fear and cause potentially lasting psychological damage. At the same time, the situation spoke of a subtle maturation of the American people in their thinking about immigration and the trade-off between liberty and security.
Just hours after the Boston explosions, Abdullah Faruque, a Bangladeshi brought up in New York City, was beaten up in the Bronx, called a “f--kin’ Arab,” and left unconscious with a dislocated shoulder. Two days later, Heba Abolaban, a Palestinian physician who emigrated from Syria, was out with her baby when she was punched in the face by a man who yelled expletives at her and accused her of being a terrorist. And though fewer incidents took place than did 12 years ago (at least as reported thus far), the sting of prejudice-induced hate felt just as sharp and chilling. Yet again, many communities were immediately deemed suspicious solely because of their race or creed.
Had the FBI relied on the same biases that plagued the media and Internet, the true perpetrators would still be unknown.
Just after 9/11, I started Hate Free Zone Washington, one of many organizations across the United States working to combat hate crimes against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities in the United States. Within weeks, that work grew into fighting government policies and practices that gave an official sanction to bias and discrimination, like secret detentions and racial profiling.
Thanks to a decade of groundwork, our communities were better prepared this time—they were ready to coordinate with law enforcement to share concerns and information quickly and efficiently. President Obama and even the FBI warned the public against jumping to any conclusions about the ethnicity of the suspects. And yet the assumptions still bubbled up through the cracks of America’s consciousness.
Was the media to blame? The New York Post falsely reported that a Saudi man was a suspect in custody. They went on to splash pictures of innocent bystanders—high school athlete Salah Barhoum and his coach—whose only crime was watching the marathon. CNN incorrectly reported that an arrest had been made of a “dark-skinned male.” Internet “detectives” jumped on this race-driven bandwagon with pictures of alleged suspects, most of them with dark skin.
Had the FBI relied on the same biases that plagued the media and Internet, the true perpetrators would still be unknown. Apart from being discriminatory, those assumptions were downright wrong.
No amount of correction after the fact fixes the damage to real people and communities. Salah Barhoum remains afraid to leave his house because he fears for his safety. The Saudi national whose apartment was raided simply because he was a dark man running from the blasts has to live with the experience of prejudice. And all dark-skinned people have to fear whether they can ever be simple bystanders instead of suspects. Are only white people allowed to watch marathons, take pictures of landmarks, or carry backpacks without being suspects?
But in the end, I am most inspired—as I was after 9/11—by ordinary people who tried to make a difference by helping others and by changing the tone of the conversation. Bystanders carried bleeding victims away from the bombings. Nurses and doctors who were part of the watching crowd rushed forward to help, and one man in a cowboy hat leaped over a fence in order to rescue some of the wounded. Non-immigrant advocates began immediately circulating messages on Listservs, warning others not to discriminate or jump to conclusions and expressing solidarity with immigrant communities who might be attacked.
I’m also cautiously hopeful about the difference in how our government has behaved. While there were attempts by some senators to push for the suspect to be tried as an enemy combatant, these efforts were not successful. We seemed to have learned that swerving to the extreme by giving up due process on some cases ultimately hurts all of us. This time, there were no secret detentions or deportations. This time, the alleged perpetrator will be tried in civilian court. Meanwhile, attempts to derail the immigration reform bill—while not finished by any means—have failed so far. Many senators on both sides of the aisle seem to understand that good policies that protect both liberty and security are our best insurance against hateful acts.
Today, polls say that Americans are less likely to trade civil liberties for security. That may be because they understand that absolute security is impossible and that the sacrifices to our freedoms are too great. It may also be because we’ve learned that our communities and our country are resilient and filled with a hope that continues to trickle through even the darkest of times.
Perhaps we really are learning—though more slowly than we’d like—the lesson that is as true today as it was twelve years ago: when fear wins, America loses. And when we stand up together, as one community bound by the same hopes, dreams, and fears, we take one step forward toward that more perfect union.
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