Two days after 9/11 I was at the armory at 25th and Lexington where families of those missing from the World Trade Center were being sent for information. My job was to produce live shots from the scene -- and that scene was one of nonstop, emotionally shattering chaos.
Whenever I needed a break from the constant pain and suffering, I would walk around the corner and bawl my eyes out. That was how it went. You worked and worked and worked and then you took ten minutes out to go off someplace and cry at how helpless you were to stop all that anguish. Around that corner that I retired to a few times a day, as it turns out, was an Afghan restaurant. The place looked lovely but I was never able to really get a look inside or grab a plate of ashak for lunch because in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 this restaurant had chosen to temporarily close. The owner locked the place and left a note on the door expressing grief and solidarity with his "fellow New Yorkers," likely because he or she knew that with the talk of Afghanistan's role in the massacre on everyone's lips it was smart to lay low. Reading that note hit home for me right at a point when I needed its implied message most. From then on out I made it my mission to treat every Muslim or person of Middle Eastern descent that I encountered -- many of whom were low-level workers often dismissed or ignored -- with respect and kindness, because it was obvious that in the wake of 9/11, they were almost certainly innocent people suddenly under suspicion and going through hell.
In a video clip that's currently making the rounds, Australian writer and TV presenter Waleed Aly explains in great detail why it's both dangerous and self-sabotaging to make all Muslims the enemy in the wake of the Paris terrorist violence. He lays out the facts about what Daesh (ISIS) wants by using their own words and posits that the coordinated attacks were designed not only to kill infidels and strike fear into the heart of the West but also to push free countries to turn against Muslims. Doing so, Daesh hopes, would drive Muslims into its waiting arms so that it could then prosecute the binary holy war it's longing for -- one pitting Islam against everybody else. Aly's overall point would be obvious even without rereading Daesh's own statements: turning against Muslims as a whole betrays our values and hands the terrorists exactly the cultural victory they want.
It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that several states here in the U.S. are now reassessing their willingness to accept Syrian refugees for resettlement. Two states were the first to officially declare themselves off limits to the refugees: Alabama and Texas. Now setting aside the fact that a) the governors of these two states operate under the faulty assumption that there's anything of value terrorists would want to target in either Alabama or Texas, and b) Syrian refugees would probably like to settle in a home that's better than the hellhole they just left, the idea of preemptively shunning an entire group of people out of fear is shockingly un-American. The states that followed Alabama and Texas's example -- led almost entirely by Republicans -- likewise seem to be forgetting what we stand for as a nation. No one's denying the potential threat and the need for vigilance by the authorities in the handling of the exiles, but these are still people seeking refuge and, lest we forget, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty -- which was coincidentally given to us by France -- leaves little doubt as to our responsibility when faced with desperate people in need of a home.
It's probably a good idea to mention that I'm no fan of Islam in much the same way I'm no fan of any faith-based religion. I think Islam is, as Sam Harris famously said, the motherlode of bad ideas and if you deny that it's the most singularly weaponized faith on planet earth at the moment, you're delusional. The teachings of the Koran and the various hadith amount entirely to superstitious nonsense, but unfortunately thanks to regions of the globe that have chosen to remain insulated to the march of progress and modernity, the hyper-violent savagery these supposedly holy texts contain and claim should be visited upon apostates is the civilized world's very big problem. The thing is, we have to be able to differentiate between being critical of Islam as a belief system and attacking the millions of peaceful people who practice the faith. That's what our free and decent society is founded on and it's precisely why Daesh hates us the way it does. If we give in to our basest fears, again, Daesh wins.
The attacks in Paris have initially accomplished what they set out to, which is scare us to death and place us, as an entire culture, on a precipice. The Daesh terrorists in their canny evil could only lead us to the point where we could choose to become the very thing we hated most, but they couldn't push us over it. That's something we have to do for ourselves. It's our decision how to respond to this barbarity and while none of us should be naive when it comes to the dangers of being a free country and extending a hand to outsiders from a tumultuous part of the world, we have to take whatever precautions we can to ensure that we can still do just that. That we can honor our commitment to being what we've always been: American. And Americans don't turn their backs on people who need help.