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Exiting The Long Tunnel We Entered On 9/11

Rejecting the new normal of our post-9/11 world.

Words: Laila Ujayli
Pictures: Arno Smit

It has been nearly two weeks since we marked the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. For many in the United States and around the world, the anniversary has served as an opportunity to mine our memories and excavate new meaning, purpose, or insight from our post-9/11 world. Here on Inkstick, contributors to our anniversary series, “The Long Tunnel,” have participated in this moment of collective remembering. They’ve drawn upon their personal memories and professional insights, covering topics ranging from the Arab-American experience in the United States to anti-Sikh bias to the ways corporations are still cashing in. Synthesizing the series would be impossible — instead, what we are left with is a constellation of thoughts and analyses, as diverse and far-reaching as the ramifications of 9/11 itself.

That painful day and its ensuing years have left indelible fingerprints on our lives. For many, that fateful day shaped their careers: Annelle Sheline became a Middle East expert and works at a think tank; Sarah Kay is a human rights lawyer who specializes in national security, counterterrorism, and warfare; and Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional and national security law. For some, 9/11 was a call of duty, to protect the US — home. But protection has come at the cost of their physical and mental health, as described by Ben Suitt III, and has even led to societal divisions between US servicemembers and the American public, as outlined by Nathalie Grogan.

For others, the memories of that day remain stark and visible, like lost loved ones and the post-9/11 wars. But some of 9/11’s marks have receded into the background, becoming part of the US’ MO — especially for those of us who were children in 2001, as both Yumna Rizvi and Emma Swislow explain in their essays. For example, the existence of the Department of Homeland Security, prisons where we continue to detain people without charge, and the use of drones to kill innocent civilians, as documented by Pauline Canham.

Air travel is another example. It’s no secret that 9/11 transformed our experience of air travel — particularly as a Muslim, Arab, or person of color more broadly. Earlier in “The Long Tunnel,” Sarah Sakha and Shadi Seyedyousef both describe the reflexive fear and panic of flying as an Iranian-American Muslim to New York on 9/11, and the different impact it’s had on both of them. In the days and years following 9/11, many have experienced the same reflexive fear while flying. But for Arabs and Muslims in particular, “trouble at the airport” has become somewhat clichéd and memified. It’s our new normal. We all have stories — and as a Syrian-American Muslim, I’m no exception.

In particular, I remember one long layover in Atlanta airport. I was six or seven years old, and returning home to Ohio with my mother and sister after a summer in Syria. Our plane had been delayed for hours on the runway of London’s Heathrow Airport, so by the time we arrived in Atlanta, we only had about two hours to catch the day’s final flight to Columbus. I remember my mother hurrying my sister and I off the plane. After a long trip, we were almost home.

But as we arrived at passport control, I remember the border agent taking our passports and leading us away from the crowds and through a series of narrow hallways to a windowless room. There, we waited with other passengers — all who looked a lot like us. Hours later, we were called up by an officer at a stall, separated from us by a pane of glass. Speaking through a vent, he asked my mother several questions. Once she answered, we were free to go. But by then, the airport had nearly emptied. We had missed our connecting flight and would have to wait until morning to complete our journey home.

The account I’ve strung together here is much more coherent than my actual memory. I had been enduring a nasty bout of the stomach flu at the time, so I spent much of the trip in a nauseated haze. I remember the journey in flashes — what Megan DuBois describes in her essay as “flashbulb memories.” The crinkle of the sick bag on the plane. Our blue passports in the border agent’s hand. The scuffed hallways. The windowless room and the officers staring at us through glass windows like tellers in a bank. That musky traveler’s perfume of dried sweat and sour breath emanating from the haggard passengers around us. The hard plastic of the chairs. Our disappointment at the airport’s quiet when we finally emerged — so close to home, yet still hours away.

For years, I treated the incident as just another “trouble at the airport” story. But as I spoke with my parents last week about 9/11’s anniversary, I realized that event — that mundane “trouble at the airport” story — cast a much darker shadow in my family’s memory. That incident, for them, represented how sharply the US government had betrayed Arab-American Muslims in 9/11’s aftermath.

My mother filled in the blanks.

As we had boarded our flight in London, there had been a terror attack somewhere in Europe. The plane was stopped on the runway. My mother didn’t know what was going on, whether we were safe, or why the flight was stopped for more than five hours. She had two young children — one vomiting — to worry about. So by the time the flight took off and touched down on US soil, she was relieved. As American citizens, we were home — we could get help, whatever had happened. The blue passports in our hand implied some sort of protection and justice from the American state, right?

But when the border agent took our passports without explanation, her heart sank. They locked us in a room with all the others who had traveled out of the Middle East. They wouldn’t let us use the bathroom. And every time she asked the officers behind the glass panes why they had detained us, they refused to respond.

In our day-to-day routines, these systemic injustices threaten to become a “new normal” — so embedded in our daily interactions that they carve themselves a space into our lives. They become just “trouble at the airport.”

Hours later, an officer finally called my mom up to the stall. He asked her basic questions, and then stamped our passports. My mother asked him again why we were detained.

Irritated at her, the officer finally snapped, “You want to know why? It’s because you’re from there.”

The officer’s forthright admission put the discrimination in much plainer terms then the typical language of “random searches” and security checks. It brought into stark clarity so much of the Muslim and Arab experience post-9/11. Being from there superseded your Americanness. Being from there dissolved your rights to privacy, to due process, to the presumption of innocence. Being from there justified the exercise of state authority and intimidation over your person. And so the quality of being from there shaped every interaction you had with American power.

Of course, this is nothing new. It has been the experience of indigenous communities, Black communities, and other communities of color since the very foundation of the American state. It has historically been the experience of Arab and Muslim communities in the United States too. But in our day-to-day routines, these systemic injustices threaten to become a “new normal” — so embedded in our daily interactions that they carve themselves a space into our lives. They become just “trouble at the airport.”

At the risk of torturing the metaphor, we’re still on the same road we were on before 9/11. But, we’ve descended into a tunnel — a longer and darker route burrowing through the earth in the same direction but without off-ramps or street lights. The national security framework that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11, outlined by Maha Hilal in our series, insulated many Americans. It told them it was safe to look away, to grant their government certain liberties in the name of security even as that same government lied, abused, and expanded its power. The deterioration of racial, civil, and political rights? The post-9/11 wars? That was and remains over there, outside the tunnel’s thick walls.

We have certainly made progress. But even twenty years after 9/11, many of the crimes of the tragedy’s ensuing years remain with us and shape our collective trauma — the security architecture, the Islamophobia, the anti-Arab racism, the endless wars, the detention, and more.  We’re still in the long tunnel. And unless we reject this new normal, younger generations’ eyes will grow accustomed to the dark.

There are two steps we can take. First, we must demand accountability. That starts with a 9/11 truth commission that reckons with the abuse of communities of color, the ramifications of the post-9/11 security architecture, an open discussion on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and the impact of the post-9/11 wars. Accountability includes finally and transparently reckoning with civilian casualties of US drone strikes and airstrikes. It also includes stepping up to ensure that those fleeing the very conditions we helped to foster can find asylum on US soil. Accountability means the US finally taking up the responsibility it abdicated over the past two decades.

Second, we must diversify our public sphere. Our government must reflect the rich diversity of the US, and ensure that those that bear the brunt of American power have a seat at the table. While we have made progress, we’re still not there yet. For example, despite the government’s focus on Muslim communities since 9/11, only four Muslims have ever served in the US Congress. The public sphere also includes the curriculums we teach, the staff we hire, and even the movies we watch. For example, a recent report found that only 0.3% of employed screenwriters and 0.3% of employed television writers are of Middle Eastern descent — behind every other ethnic group. When we increase visibility and elevate voices, we make it more difficult to leave communities outside of the tunnel. Instead, we bring them along with us, and let them shine a light on both our successes and our failings.

Importantly, we must continue to engage in this process of collective remembering. Like our contributors in “The Long Tunnel,” we must continue to examine the diverse and far-reaching ramifications of 9/11. Even if the same arguments have already been argued, even if there’s no fresh take left to write — these thoughts, analyses, and memories all bear repeating, so that we indeed never forget. I care little for originality — give me the rage, repetition, and resolve we need to finally drive out into the sunlight and chart a new path.

Laila Ujayli is an associate editor at Inkstick Media and JD candidate at Harvard Law School. She is interested in the use of storytelling to reorient US foreign policy toward human needs.

“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of Sept. 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.

Laila Ujayli

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