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🧭 Make the Better Choice
A reflection, 22 years after September 11.
There is a yin and yang to the story of where we find ourselves 22 years after 9/11. It is a story of reductive behavior but also stunning advancement - a bifurcation most evident in our current cultural and political polarization, and a battle we continue to wage decades after it began.
Today, 9/11 and its fallout finds its most telling crystallization in the choices we continue to make in its wake.
Even in our ignorance / we gained consciousness
Before 9/11, I was everyone except for who I really was.
Mexican, Indian, Native American. Some accurate, none wholly so. The real story of who I was and where I came from was beyond comprehension for people who couldn’t even find these countries on a map.
And then there were my odd behaviors. Certainly no one knew why I randomly abstained from food and drink for a month (yes, not even water).
That all changed after 9/11. Along with millions of others, I started to be noticed and in some cases harmed.
America’s ignorance was on full display in the months immediately following 9/11. Many Sikh Americans were routinely mistaken for Muslims and one, Balbir Singh Sodi of Mesa, AZ, was the first among many murdered in a post-9/11 rampage of hate crimes. These and the other murders that followed formed the worst excesses of a trend that saw hate crimes spike by 1600% percent in the year after 9/11.
But attitudes also changed for the better.
By the 2010, Obama’s hope and change had brought me to Washington D.C. Soon after my arrival, I remember overhearing a woman’s phone conversation with her friend: “I know you’re fasting right now - let’s talk about this after sunset.” Her casual acquaintance with a heretofore mysterious culture and religion seemed remarkable - something I never would have expected to hear prior to 9/11.
In the years after 9/11, these and many other trends have taken hold of the public consciousness. Even as hate crimes continue to simmer (and indeed spike to all time highs after the election of Donald Trump), people today are increasingly educated about and conscious of the millions of South Asians, Muslims and Arab-Americans living right under their noses this whole time.
Perhaps no other group of individuals has transformed the consciousness of Americans over the last 22 years than comedians. In their identity, as well as in the content of their humor - I have seen us reflected, humanized and uplifted.
Jasmeet Singh, Hasan Minhaj, Russell Peters (don’t hate), Maz Jobrani, Shazia Mirza, Maysoon Zayid, Aziz Ansari … their jokes have made us relatable and understandable - and after all, it is hard to fear that which you relate to and understand.
Even as we were attacked / we fought back
It wasn’t just others who became conscious. I did too.
As an undergrad, I remember an anxious rainy night with three college friends in a cold car parked outside our favorite Los Angeles restaurant. Through the restaurant window, we saw but ignored the sight of our dinner plates going cold. The voice on the radio held our attention. It was George Bush, announcing the start of the war in Iraq.
Were it not for 9/11, it is likely we may have cared more about dinner and less about the war. We didn’t start out as young people who thought about the world in this way. But 9/11’s impact on us and our loved ones made us conscious of the people in power who manipulated our fate.
We danced unwillingly, like marionettes swaying to the symphony of destruction. And we decided to do something about it.
As time passed, it became important for us to show up - not just for our community, but for all communities. Misplaced shame for things we weren’t responsible for may have been partly to blame - but consciousness nonetheless drove us to service. I felt this pull to service as well. During law school I worked in the south to help communities recover from Hurricane Katrina. After returning home, I took my lessons from that experience to start the Los Angeles Mobile Legal Aid Clinic.
We did not feel the burden of discrimination in the same way as our Black and Jewish brothers and sisters in decades past, but like them we responded by joining a growing movement of American Muslims and South Asians who chose to defend civil rights as a calling and a career choice:
Discriminatory institutional responses to 9/11 drove South Asians, Arab-Americans, Muslims and others to run for public office after 9/11 - setting a record in 2022.
Over the last two decades thousands became civil rights lawyers like Jameel Jaffer, who advanced legal theory through novel applications of the law in Guantanamo Bay litigation.
And today, hundreds of NGO’s like the successful Sikh Coalition exist to advance the rights of minorities affected by 9/11, having secured substantial policy victories nationwide.
I made the same choice, dedicating the bulk of my career to curbing government overreach in the national security state.
Since 9/11 new generations have confronted their own national tragedies: from the 2008 economic collapse, to COVID, to the murder of George Floyd.
And here’s the lesson learned: It matters that we experienced these events, but how we chose to respond to them over time is even more important. Did we choose ignorance and anger? Or consciousness and justice?
How we choose to respond to external events is, after all, the only thing we control.
So as you do this work yourself, or see someone who is working to build a fair and just world: drop a kind word, because they are making hard choices even in the face of tragedy and injustice. And that’s not always easy to do.
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📅 Reading & Watching
Prelude to Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
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In America you can go on the air and kid the politicians, and the politicians can go on the air and kid the people.