The terrorist attacks of 9/11, didn’t create the civilizational divide, they exposed it. Further, the attacks and their aftermath tragically provided an opportunity for extremists whose intent it has been to widen the gap between East and West and transform it into an unbridgeable chasm.
It is three years later and while some thoughtful and moderating voices can now be heard across the divide, the dynamic is still being driven by those who exploit the hurt, anger, and fear that exists on both sides. More must be done to challenge these negative forces.
It has become commonplace to say that after 9/11 the world has changed-but exactly how is the question that deserves some examination.
Here in the US, the impact of the attacks is still very much with us. For 3,000 families and the nation that embraced their pain and loss, 9/11 has meant unending mourning for lives ended and lives forever altered.
The country, as a whole, has changed and not only in its mood. While the long list of recommendations made by several commissions convened to improve homeland security have not yet been fully implemented, still some real differences in daily life are clear.
Washington DC, for example, now has checkpoints-seventeen at last count-surrounding the Capitol. For some, these blockades are a nuisance, for others they are a sign of necessary precautions-but for all they are intended as a constant reminder that we live in "a new era of insecurity."
Airport security has, of course, changed, creating a degree of intrusiveness that thirty years ago would have been considered unthinkable. Even more intriguing has been the expansion of many of these same security procedures and practices (check-ins, metal detectors, video surveillance cameras, etc.) in other government and, increasingly, a large range of private sector office buildings.
Life has changed in other ways, for many Arab Americans and recent Arab immigrants. The post-9/11 detentions, deportations, the "call-ups" and the use of ethnic and religious profiling has taken a toll. While cooperation with law enforcement (national and local) has increased and some of the post 9/11 abuses have been corrected, there remains for many the concern of being targeted and the fear of "the knock on the door."
The spate of hate crimes that marked the first few months after the terrorist attacks has subsided, but real problems remain. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim animus, which was given free reign after 9/11, though less prevalent, is still a concern. While only the problem of a minority, they are a vocal and potentially dangerous minority. Fanatics like the Pentagon official General Boykin, or religious leaders like Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham, or extremist radio talk show hosts-all continue to spew their venom to an audience that has come to accept vile stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as real information. What has, of course, created the opening for all of this is the continuing fear and anger generated by 9/11 coupled with continuing ignorance about the Arab world and Islam.
Added to this is the fact that events in the region and the Administration’s own post-9/11 policies have only served to exacerbate this insecurity and reinforce this ignorance. Iraq and Palestine have become "killing fields"-places of unimaginable horror. Over 1,000 Americans have now died in Iraq. More than 1,000 Israelis have perished as have over 3,000 Palestinians and uncounted thousands of Iraqis-all in conflicts understood by many Americans only in crude caricatures of "us versus them" devoid of history and context. This may not be reality, but with continuing insecurity, solace is found by embracing such simplistic explanations. And it is this insecurity that has been exploited by extremist ideologues on both sides of the civilizational divide.
Despite the continuing dominance exercised by these purveyors of fear, thoughtful voices continue to be raised challenging the stereotypes and calling for new initiatives to change the prevailing destructive course of events.
Broad coalitions in the US continue to demand protection for Arab and Muslim immigrants. A high point, for example, of the Democratic convention was the stirring call for healing issued by keynote speaker Barack Obama who noted "If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief-I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper-that makes this country work."
Similarly, there are a number of initiatives led by prominent political leaders who are seeking ways of "closing the divide" promoting both informational programs and policy changes that will help the US better understand the Arab world and be better understood by the Arab world.
The continuing war in Iraq and the numbing cycle of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also brought forth strong coalitions of conscience challenging continued American policies in both arenas. While these efforts have not yet transformed the policy debate they nevertheless are hopeful signs that change may be underway.
On a separate but related note, in the Arab and Muslim arenas, recent editorials in major newspapers and commentaries by prominent leaders have criticized the morality and political efficacy of the continuing wanton violence in Iraq, Palestine, and even Chechnya. And they have called for needed changes in Arab and Muslim societies. These efforts too are encouraging. Critics on both sides of the divide can and should recognize each others efforts and work to reinforce one another. The bankruptcy of war and the evil of terror do not cancel each other out. They only feed each other, providing justifications for extremists who prey off the fears that created these horrors in the first place.
With so much having been lost on 9/11 and in the seemingly endless bloodletting that has followed, we, all of us, continue to face the same challenges-to reach across the divide, shout down the extremists who preach hate and spread fear, and bridge the gap that we have, for too long, ignored.