The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a national and personal tragedy. It was one of the darkest days in the history of America. Many of us knew people who died that day at the World Trade Center.
But it was also a day of resolve.
For those of us who have been combating hate for decades, we realized that because of the enormous tragedy, Americans could now understand viscerally what they understood only in the abstract until then — that hate affects us all. So, if the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor was, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the “date which will live in infamy,” 9/11 was the “day that hate became everyone’s problem.”
How have we as a society done since then in addressing the consequences of hate? The results are a somewhat mixed bag. America has struggled to find the right balance between protecting our nation from terrorist attacks and protecting civil liberties.
In resolving debates over police and executive powers — including the handling of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, curbing material support for terrorists, and the increased use of new surveillance warrants — the nation’s institutions and the American people have demonstrated great resilience.
There are other useful barometers of how well we learned the lessons of 9/11. There’s the challenge of combating Muslim extremists who threaten America here and abroad while at the same time avoiding the stereotyping of Muslim Americans.
In the aftermath of the attacks, many high-level civic leaders and public officials responded to the increase in profiling, discrimination, and hate violence directed against Muslims, Sikhs, and Arabs by speaking out and strengthening connections with affected communities. Though the number of reported bias crimes directed at Muslim Americans remains unacceptably high, they have diminished since 2001.
Yet over the last two years we have documented an elevated anti-Muslim atmosphere as seen in campaigns against the building or expansion of mosques in a number of cities and in the anti-Sharia law initiatives in some states.
ADL is doing its part bringing together the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, a diverse national coalition of community leaders of many faiths to support the filing of amicus briefs in communities where opposition to the building of a mosque is a transparent cover for discrimination or prejudice. And we have been speaking out against anti-Sharia legislation to let the American public know the sponsors are promoting a dangerous fantasy that Sharia law is a threat to U.S. constitutional law.
At the same time, a disturbing new element in the terror threat picture has emerged: the role a growing number of American citizens and residents, motivated by radical interpretations of Islam, have played in criminal plots to attack Americans in the United States and abroad.
A key element in containing these threats is the ability of U.S. officials and law enforcement to work with American Muslims. That is just one more reason why stereotypes of Muslims must be avoided. At the same time, it is vital for more and more Muslim leaders to speak out unequivocally against Islamic extremism and terrorism.
As part of creating trust, it is important for U.S. officials to address other forms of domestic extremism from white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and environmental and animal rights extremists. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of violence emanating from white supremacists and the “sovereign citizen” movement, which does not acknowledge the legitimacy or authority of the government.
Paying serious attention to these movements is the right and smart thing to do. And it will also help allay fears of Muslim Americans that they are being uniquely singled out as the source of anti-American terror in today’s world.
Sadly, the decade since 9/11 has been one where anti-Semitism has once again emerged as a central theme of those who most threaten America and Americans.
It is very discouraging to see this surge of anti-Semitism. Most of it has been around the world in the form of conspiracy theories — blaming Jews for 9/11 and the financial crisis, denying the Holocaust, attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions. The extreme Right in America has picked up on the conspiracy theories but the main support for these charges and attacks on Jews has been in Europe and the Middle East. Muslim extremists, led by such as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden, were the most high-profile purveyors of these accusations against Jews.
Looking back at this period on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we can take satisfaction in the fact that America’s democratic principles have broadly withstood these harsh challenges. The fight against hate remains critical as we seek to preserve the values and ideals we most cherish in America.