Rhymes with 9/11

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes

Mark Twain

I could not have anticipated that what I wrote on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks regarding how this country really treated its Muslim population (residents and citizens alike) would be relevant again so soon. I won’t claim any special insight into the Middle East, or the latest war between Hamas and Israel–but the response of the U.S. government, U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle, U.S.-based mainstream media, and everyday citizens looks more and more familiar with each passing day.

Balbir Singh Sodhi (a Sikh, not even a Muslim) was murdered 4 days after 9/11. His killer proceeded from there on a non-fatal shooting spree against a gas station clerk (a Lebanese-American) and at his former home (previously purchased by an Afghan family local to Mesa, Arizona). Little more than a week after Hamas’ attacks on Israel, a Chicago landlord stabbed two of his Muslim tenants repeatedly, killing 6-year-old Wade Al-Fayoume.

As recounted in Spencer Ackerman’s Return to Little Pakistan, Muslims in Brooklyn began receiving business cards from agents of the FBI and INS, and NYPD officers asking to be called as soon as possible to answer questions. We would later learn that the NYPD would illegal surveil Muslims both inside and outside New York City for over a decade after 9/11, not generating a single lead that exposed any terrorists or prevented any attacks in all that time. The LAPD tried and failed to follow New York’s lead in 2007. Just one day after the Biden administration announced plans for the DOJ and DHS to partner with campus police to track hate-related threats, Ackerman reports that the ADL is urging college and university administrators to investigate campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine for “potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.”–without providing any evidence of such support from any chapter of this organization. The same organization whose Center on Extremism claims to “strategically monitor, expose and disrupt extremist threats” removed the notorious Libs of TikTok account (and Chaya Raichik, the woman behind it) from their extremism list after she threatened a lawsuit. This isn’t even the first retreat of October 2023 for the ADL, having resumed advertising on Twitter after Elon Musk threatened to sue them for defamation the month before.

To oppose the open-ended Authorization for Use of Military Force that would enable military operations in no less than 22 countries (including the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and war in Iraq, and detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) was a lonely endeavor that came with death threats, insults, and hate mail. While there is almost certainly more (and growing) opposition to the IDF bombing campaign in Gaza than there was to the US invading Iraq, any sympathy at all for unarmed Palestinian civilians unaffiliated with Hamas (or any other militant group) has come with consequences like firing from jobs, revocation of job offers, threats of deportation from Donald Trump, and a Senate resolution condemning specific campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (per Ackerman’s reporting).

Our country treated the 9/11 attacks as an existential threat–a thing that could cause the U.S. to cease to exist. That mindset regarding the threat of terrorism rationalized not only the bipartisan sacrifice of civil liberties named the Patriot Act within our borders, but “a worldwide policy of detention and interrogation”, ultimately resulting in the death of innocents as explored in documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side. As of May 2023, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay still holds 30 detainees–some still await trial, some being held indefinitely facing no charges and without recommendation for release.

The threat to Jews both worldwide and within Israel itself is very real. Anti-semitism–whether here in the U.S. or abroad–is never far beneath the surface. Not much time has passed since the former president defended neo-Nazis and others protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue as “very fine people”, or since the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 and wounded 6 worshippers–including Holocaust survivors. As with the U.S. and the countries we attacked with military force in response to 9/11 however, the difference in military power between Israel and those who threaten it is substantial. Depending on which reports you read, between 5000 and 10,000 Palestinians have died in airstrikes from Israel’s military–the vast majority of those women and children. This death toll–the vast majority of them civilians–will only grow. The civilian death toll during the so-called Global War on Terror is orders of magnitude larger. Prior to the latest attacks by Hamas, Israel was holding over 1200 people in detention (virtually all Palestinians) without charges or trial. Per AP’s reporting, Israel’s military justice system is what Palestinians are subject to, not unlike the military tribunals used at the Guantanamo Bay prison to try terrorism suspects.

Unlike the U.S. military, Israel can’t leave where it is. It can change its policies and its leaders, but not its neighbors. I have no idea what the answer is to whether or not Israel and the Palestinians will ever be able to co-exist in a status other than “cold” war or hot war. But the ways Israel’s response to October 7 rhymes with the US response to September 11 probably mean we’ll be asking that question for a long time.

1/6 and 9/11

Absent from much of the written commentary I’ve read about the insurrection at the US Capitol last year has been any mention of how much the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks helped to pave the way to where we are now.  A friend sent me this piece by a Canadian professor which serves as a good example of what I mean.

Though he correctly identifies specific individuals and economic forces going back 40 years that transferred wealth upward even as they directed discontent (if not rage) about this state of affairs against poor and minority populations at home and “foreign aid” abroad, there is not a single mention of the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.  The nation’s lurch toward authoritarianism in the wake of those attacks was bipartisan.  Just a single congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the open-ended Authorization for Use of United States Armed Forces which would later be used to invade Iraq on pretexts that would prove false.  Large bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate drafted and approved the Patriot Act for George W. Bush to sign into law.  It authorized the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  George W. Bush’s administration engaged in warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans, extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, and torture of those same suspects.  Enemy combatant status was created out of thin air, as were the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba–all to deny people the rights they should have had under our Constitution.  The NYPD illegally surveilled Muslims both inside and outside New York City for over a decade after the attacks.  The LAPD tried and failed to create a similar surveillance program in 2007.

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s piece mentions Christians just twice, once as fertile soil for the seeds of white nationalist great replacement theory to take root and flourish, and again as a group that would be super-empowered in a second Trump administration.  He projects a rise in violence by vigilante, paramilitary groups in the same sentence, though the use of Christian symbols and rhetoric by such groups has a history stretching back well over a century in the US.  The involvement of conservative Christian groups in the insurrection is much less-surprising however when you look back at their response to 9/11.  When surveyed in 2009 by the Pew Research Center, a majority of white evangelical Protestants said that torture against terrorism suspects could sometimes or often be justified.  This belief was held both by majorities of Christians who attended church a few times a year or monthly, and those who attended church weekly–or more often.  Years after the original survey, you could even find a piece like this one in The Federalist quoting Bible passages and Thomas Aquinas to argue that Christians can support torture.

Not mentioned at all in the Homer-Dixon piece–significant increases in anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  The first murder victim of an anti-Muslim hate crime turned out to be a naturalized American citizen, Balbir Singh Sodhi. The turban he wore in adherence to the Sikh faith was sufficient cause for a bigot to murder him.  Anti-Muslim sentiment would later take the form of the birther conspiracy, for whom Donald Trump would become the most powerful cheerleader.  We have seen other anti-Muslim murders due to the ignorance of bigots (in Olathe, Kansas) as well as violent assaults. We’ve also seen the political right demagogue Park51 into the “Ground Zero mosque”.  That same year (2010) saw the introduction of anti-Sharia bills in a significant majority of our 50 states.  The number of conservative professed Christians who believed (and perhaps still believe) the birther conspiracy is in retrospect perhaps one explanation for the ease with which the QAnon conspiracy spread within the same community.  But looking back a bit further, that community’s response to 9/11 might have revealed a predisposition to conspiracy theories more generally.  In 2006, a division of the denomination publishers for the Presbyterian Church published a 9/11 conspiracy book.

There will certainly be more commentary about January 6th as this year progresses–particularly as more insurrectionists plead guilty to the crimes with which they’re charged or (finally) face trial.  But the absence of a full reckoning with how this country’s responses to 9/11 helped pave the way for 1/6 will prevent us from fully understanding that event–and might enable the next insurrection to succeed.