I have been searching for weeks for the appropriate followup to my first piece for The Huffington Post on passing for white as an Arab American, published on the tenth anniversary of the War in Iraq. Then, the Boston Marathon bombings happened. All of a sudden, I was flooded with emotion as a member of the human race, and it evoked memories of the aftermath of September 11th. However, here was an act of terrorism for which I was fully awake.
Most people don't know that I slept through September 11th. Most people don't know because I felt ashamed, as though it made me somehow complicit, as though it made me somehow less American because I hadn't gone through the pain, grief, and devastation in real time.
I remember the day pretty well. I had just returned home the evening before from a Christian camping retreat sponsored by my Episcopalian high school, a retreat emphasizing the beauty of camaraderie, of supporting each other as children of this earth. I had come down with a cold. So, I stayed in bed on that fateful morning, rising only to call my AP Art History teacher shortly before the attacks to let her know that I would not be in class for the scheduled quiz. No commotion existed at that time. It was a morning, like any other morning. I crawled back under the covers, ignorant to the fact that the next time I would open my eyes, it would be to a world forever changed.
With Boston, as with every attack following September 11th, three thoughts ran through my head:
A) My heart bleeds for those directly affected and their loved ones.
B) Dear God, please don't let an Arab and/or Muslim be the mastermind behind this (a sentiment apparently shared by others in my position, including UCLA's Khaled A. Beydoun, whose Al Jazeera piece was brought to my attention while writing this article).
C) I resign myself to the assumption that it probably is... an Arab... or a Muslim... or both (as many times as any of us say it, it warrants repeating -- one is a race, the other is a religion).
The problem here is point "C." If I, who have a vested interest in the terrorist not having any ties to my race or religion, have already concluded that (s)he does before any official suspects or implicating evidence have been presented, then the masses have come to the same conclusion. In the court of personal and public opinion, the verdict is in. It's how we've been conditioned to think. It's how I have conditioned myself to think. From now on, when these catastrophic events occur, it will trigger a certain reaction in me, regardless of who is involved.
It makes me angry. It makes me angry to live in an era when my people are defined globally by the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and McVeighs among us. It makes me angry that the proportionately few are essentially paralyzing us, those who make it our mission to wake up daily and live by example, to achieve respect by earning it, to champion the beauty and majesty of our collective histories.
It makes me angry that terrorism in this world exists, above and beyond the acts of cowardice at the hands of those who hail from the Middle East. And, I say cowardice because, in these moments, eye contact is not made, a discourse using intellect and emotion is not had, a cause is not advanced. After all, what cause could be when faced with the image of an eight-year-old innocent boy senselessly killed on the streets of Boston -- a city defined by the American spirit? An eight-year-old boy who was cheering his father at an event meant to bring people of all backgrounds together on Patriots Day. An eight-year-old boy who will forever serve as a symbol of the loss of innocence.
It also shocks me that acts like this continue on American soil, not because I feel that the government's precautionary measures should have somehow thwarted any threat but because terrorists should see that their acts here in the States backfire every time. Instead of tearing a people apart, these acts bring everyone together in a way perhaps not seen anywhere else in the world. That sense of community during crisis is a defining characteristic of American identity -- one that could serve others in the world quite well, others who remain wedded to sectarian thinking.
In times like this, there is nothing more inspiring than the strength and resolve of Americans. In times like this, I do not want to renounce everything Arab and Muslim about me, but I do want to embrace without reservation the part of me that is American by birth and upbringing, with the hope that I will be seen as such by my peers as I lend a helping hand or listening ear, as I seek to stand tall, hand-in-hand with my fellow Americans. I see the power and integrity of the people who surround me in a place I call home. That's the silver lining here, the beauty of camaraderie, of supporting each other as children of this earth not just during a Christian camping retreat. And, it's the only thing that keeps me from wishing that I had never opened my eyes on September 11th.