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Wednesday, September 7,2011

Still looking for the fire escape

Reflections and repercussions, 10 years after 9/11

by Lawrence Cosentino

The approach of Sept. 11, 2011, has set
off a plume of words and images reliving the horrors and heroes of Sept.
11, 2001, but the anniversary has also opened a quiet back door to
reflection. David Hollister, mayor of Lansing 10 years ago, has a
sobering take on the past decade. 


“It’s sad but it’s reality,” Hollister
said. “In many ways, the terrorists won. They got us to be afraid. They
got us willing to sacrifice our civil liberties. They got us to be the
heavy.”


Hollister is among those who mourn the
victims and celebrate the heroes of that day, but also finds the
post-9/11 loss of American lives, resources and international good will
“incalculable.”


“The war in Iraq, the polarization of our
politics in this country and in the world, where we got isolated, will
take years and years of unraveling.”


The towers burned and fell long ago, but
America still hasn’t found the fire escape. We asked several thoughtful
people, some of whom will speak at a 10th anniversary symposium at MSU
Sept. 15, to reflect on the aftermath of 9/11. They told stories of
America at its best and worst, of opportunities squandered and new
opportunities on the horizon, 10 years after a bright fall morning
turned to ash.




‘They hate us’


Salah Hassan was two years into his job
at MSU in September 2001. Hassan, an English professor and faculty
member in the Muslim Studies area program, was just settling into his
new home in Lansing after finishing graduate studies at the University
of Texas at Austin. His wife was eight months’ pregnant with their first
child.


“There was a lot going on in my life in September 2001,” Hassan said.


Born in Canada of Lebanese parentage,
Hassan was raised a Muslim, although he called the question of his
religion “as complicated as Lebanon.”


The year before, he was asked to develop and teach a required course to undergraduates on the Middle East.


One month into the fall 2001 semester,
Hassan and his 100 students were swept up into the storm of 9/11.
Instantly, he split the course into two threads: a crash lesson in Arab
and Islamic culture and history and a running multimedia watch.


“The students didn’t know the difference
between an Arab and a Muslim,” Hassan said. “They didn’t know that
Iranians and Arabs are not the same, or that Afghans are not Arabs. They
think the whole region is one homogeneous mass. Ten years later, I
still have to explain those differences.”


For the first few years after 9/11,
Hassan was on a no-fly list. After that, he was singled out for
individual searches. “I would travel with my wife and my two daughters
and I would be the only one pulled out of a line and searched,” he said.
He said he “got used to it.”


“My personal experience was unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as some people who were detained and deported.”


When people say that 9/11 “changed
everything,” they are often talking about different things. Hassan saw
signs of American hostility toward Muslims as early as the Iranian
hostage crisis of the 1970s, but he called the post-9/11 response
“programmatic:” a broad sweep of military, legal and extra-legal acts
ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the racial profiling of
Muslim-Americans. In the past 10 years, he has uneasily tracked
media-fueled hysteria over Islamic sleeper cells and aggressive FBI
infiltration of United States mosque communities, which he dryly called
another “negative” post-9/11 innovation.


“That has had a devastating impact, not
only in relations with Arab and majority Muslim countries, but also had a
very serious impact in U.S. relations with other parts of the world,”
Hassan said.


When Ayman Mohamed, a graduate student at
MSU’s Second Language Studies program, came to East Lansing from Egypt
in fall 2008, he wasn’t sure what to expect.


“Before I came here, I was anticipating trouble,” Mohamed said. “I was curious how people would look at me.”


Mohamed said he didn’t feel like the
target of any hostility or discrimination, but when Florida pastor Terry
Jones (who is scheduled to hold a rally at the Capitol today)
threatened to burn a Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 in 2010,
Mohamed’s father called him from Egypt at 5 a.m. and begged him to leave
the United States. “They hate us,” his father told him. “They’ll hurt
you.”


Mohamed told his father it was just one
man who was not representative of most Americans, but that September, to
his shock, a man desecrated and burnt a Quran and left it at East
Lansing’s Islamic Center.


Mohamed rushed to the mosque on Harrison Road, across the street from his apartment, and got another surprise.


“I could not believe my eyes as I saw a
number of American people standing in the reception placing flowers and
writing words of support,” Mohamed wrote in an essay on the experience.
“My eyes responded with tears. I wanted to hug everybody and cry hard
but was too shy.”


“I still believe that in the core of the
American people, good values are still there,” Mohamed said last week.
“American people in general appreciate us and integrate us, they don’t
discard us from life. What I don’t like is some media which have
agendas. They come up and trigger the emotion again.”


Mohammed Ayoob, a professor of
international relations at MSU, said the 10 years since 9/11 fell
somewhere between his worst fears and best hopes.


“Despite all the Islamophobia we see in
this country, there’s been a remarkable outpouring of good will,
particularly in this community, toward Muslims,” he said.


Both Ayoob and Hassan used the word “paradox” to describe the mixed emotions that rose in the American psyche after 9/11.


“When Islamophobia was at its height,
around 2007 or 2008, a person named Barack Hussein Obama could be
elected president. That’s the paradox that 9/11 brought to the surface,”
Hassan said.


Over the top


Anabel Dwyer, an anti-nuclear activist
and attorney, lived in Lansing in 2001. She now lives in Mackinac City
and works as an attorney and anti-nuclear activist.


Dwyer said the last 10 years bore out many of the fears Lansing citizens expressed at a rally organized by  Rep. Mike Rogers at Lansing Catholic High School Sept. 17, 2001. Hollister was also there.


“A bunch of people we’d never seen before
went to it,” Dwyer said. “We said [the 9/11 attack] was a horrible
criminal act, but it was not an act of war, and war wouldn’t do any
good.”


Dwyer wrote a strong guest column in City
Pulse on Oct. 3, 2001: “U.S. must answer for its terrorism.” Last week,
she said that even she didn’t envision the welter of consequences that
flowed from 9/11.


“Things are worse than they were 10 years ago,” Dwyer said. “The wars went over the top, especially with Iraq.”


To Hollister, the Iraq war was a fatal blow to America’s post-9/11 claims of righteousness and victimhood.


“After 9/11, headlines around the world
were behind America. The French were singing our praises, for God’s
sake,” Hollister said. “When Bush took on Iraq, and then the subsequent
revelation that it was manufactured intelligence, there was an erosion
of the support and good will.”


Ayoob is most troubled that 9/11 brought
about “a concern, bordering on obsession, with security, which has come
into a clash with legitimate civil rights concerns.”


To examine these and other long-term
ramifications of 9/11, Ayoob and three MSU departments have put together
the symposium next week at MSU. He called the symposium “an attempt, 10
years on, to analyze and reflect upon what 9/11 has done to us, both as
Americans and international players.”


Joanne Mariner, an expert on
counter-terrorism laws and policies, shares Ayoob’s concern. Mariner,
who will speak at the symposium, is director of Hunter College’s Human
Rights Program and sits on the board of advisers of the International
Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague.


Mariner doesn’t share Hollister’s assessment that the terrorists “won.”


“They certainly cost us a lot of money,
but I don’t see that they won,” she said. “The U.S. is still a strong
constitutional democracy.”


But Mariner, like Dwyer, thinks post-9/11
American policy gravely erred in conflating two different tasks: waging
war and fighting terrorism. “Our traditions of fair process and strong
system of justice have been tarnished by some of the steps that have
been taken,” she said.


Among the worst of these reactive steps, in Mariner’s view, is long-term detention without trial.


“There are still nearly 100 people at
Guantanamo,” Mariner said. “That kind of detention without trial is
typical of places like Libya, Syria, Egypt. Even in those countries, 10
years is on the outer end of the spectrum. If you want to single out
something that is the most counter-productive measure, single that out.”


Mariner finds no evidence that the criminal justice system failed. “If
you look at the record of criminal prosecutions, pre- and post-Sept.
11, there aren’t any terrorists that get off the hook,” she said. “They
face long sentences and they’re held in super-maximum security prisons.
They’re not escaping. To create a Guantanamo and a military justice
system to handle terrorism is surprising, and disappointing.”


Hollister used stronger language.


“Torturing prisoners, surveilling
Americans, sweeping up people into hidden camps in other countries —
those are a diminution of our principles, our values, our Constitution,”
Hollister said. “That is a significant and severe loss.”




Lessons learned


Ten years later, as the term “war on terror” is quietly
withdrawn from the vocabulary of the Obama administration, Anabel Dwyer
sees the tide turning the other way.


“Yes, the war went on and horrible things
happened, but we are getting out of Iraq,” Dwyer said. “Cheney is
completely discredited. People didn’t roll over and play dead.”


“I think the lessons of Iraq have been learned,’ Ayoob
said. He pointed to Obama’s low-key, multilateral strategy in helping
insurgents topple the Gadhafi regime in Libya. “The lesson has sunk in
that democracy in the Arab world, or anywhere else, for that matter,
cannot be imposed by force of arms.”


Mariner said the U.S. is safer now than it was before
9/11, but mostly because the Islamic and Arab world has turned its
attention to other matters. She said it’s too early to say whether the
revolutions sweeping the Middle East will satisfy expectations, but
there’s hope in the Arab world “that isn’t focused on al-Qaeda.”


“Al-Qaeda is not in a good position
internationally,” Mariner said. “The masses of potential [terrorist]
recruits have other things to think about, like building a country in
Libya. It gives us a real opportunity to think rationally about how to
fight terrorism.” 


There are other signs that the cycle of storms that began on 9/11 is playing itself out.


“There’s an exhaustion people have for
these issues,” Hassan said. “The best indication of that is that when
Osama bin Laden was killed, there was really no mourning of his death on
the part of Arabs and Muslims. It was virtually a non-event.”


Hollister agreed that U.S. strategy is
more internationally focused. “We don’t want to be seen as the heavy in
the Middle East,” he said. “We’re sensitive to not wanting to provoke
attacks, but to support indigenous uprisings.”


Hassan pointed out that the uprisings
haven’t been driven by anti-U.S. or anti-Israeli feelings, although “we
are seeing a rejection of autocratic monarchies and dictatorships the
U.S. has supported.”


It’s hard for Ayman Mohamed to watch this
new chapter of history in the Islamic and Arab world, and especially
his native Egypt, from an apartment in Spartan Village, but he feels
lucky to be at MSU, even with four more years to go until he gets his
doctorate. In the meantime, he said, “everything is normal,” except for
one thing.


“I can’t help being afraid that something
else would happen that would again trigger the feeling,” Mohamed said.
“We in the Muslim community are always shaking — something will happen
that will gain trigger the emotions again.”




Ten Years After 9/11: Analyses and Reflections
Sponsored by MSU Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, Muslim Studies Program, and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, MSU Union Ballroom, Free and open to the public

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