Nine years ago today the world changed forever.
Especially for the U.S., which had not suffered such a deadly, surprise attack by a foreign enemy on its own soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
And in that moment when most of us felt vulnerable and frightened in a way we never had before, many people looked for someone our country could strike back at, an enemy we could identify and defeat so we could feel safe again.
And to his eternal credit, however numerous his other failings as president may have been, George W. Bush made it clear, vocally and often, who that enemy was . . . and who it was not.
The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.
Address to Congress and the American People
United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.
September 20, 2001
President Bush, and many others, also made it clear that if we as a nation allowed fear to cloud our reason so that we blamed and lashed out at fellow Americans who happened to share the same race or religion as our attackers, we would be stooping to our enemy’s level. To use a phrase frequently repeated then and since, we would be letting the terrorists win.
And as the smoke was still clearing around Ground Zero, some of New York’s most famous citizens echoed this sentiment.
Because the corporate headquarters of both DC and Marvel Comics are located in Manhattan, 9/11 had a very personal impact on many comics professionals. In the wake of this tragedy, several comic books were published to raise money for a variety of victim relief funds. In Heroes, a mini poster book released by Marvel two months after the attack, superheroes served either as patriotic icons meant to strengthen the resolve of Americans to rebuild and strike back, or as powerless figments of the imagination held in poignant contrast to the first responders and selfless civilians who were the real heroes of the day.
Since not only its offices, but also most of its characters are based in New York City, Marvel was also the first comic book publisher to reference 9/11 in its regular titles. Written by J. Michael Straczynskiand illustrated by John Romita, Jr., The Amazing Spider-Man #36 came out around the same time as Heroes bearing a plain black cover. Chiefly an expression of national grief, it did urge for a measured military response and warned about accepting the hate mongering blame-throwing of religious fanatics, both Christian and Muslim.
But as time passed and the spirit of intolerance began to fester in scattered pockets around the country, later comic books commemorating 9/11 tried to warn people against letting ignorance and fear turn them into terrorists themselves. The DC Comics anthology 9-11, published in January 2002, contained a story written by Dwayne McDuffie and drawn by Denys Cowan in which the teenaged superhero Static comes to the aid of an Arab-American Muslim whose video arcade is being vandalized by a couple of flag-waving bigots out for some misplaced revenge.
Of course, if any superhero’s opinion about the appropriate response to 9/11 was going to have an impact on the public consciousness—or conscience—it would have to be Captain America’s. In 2002, Marvel began a new series starring the “Sentinel of Liberty” by writer John Ney Rieber and artist John Cassady.
Beginning at Ground Zero on 9/11, the initial story line opened with Steve Rogers, Captain America’s civilian identity, helping to dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center, vainly looking for survivors. Walking home that night through the gloomy, dust-filled streets of Manhattan, he passes a young Arab-American man being stalked by a grief-stricken father whose daughter was just killed in the attack. Quickly donning his costume and indestructible shield, Captain America intervenes to save the young man from being stabbed, and towers over the fallen father as a living symbol of our country’s highest ideals. Looking down into the kneeling man’s tearing eyes as the light of reason begins to shine in them again, Captain America thinks:
We’ve got to be stronger than we’ve ever been –
As a people.
As a nation.
We have to be America.
Or they’ve won.
And now, nearly a decade later, it looks like they have.
The madness of the crowds
I find the outrage over Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf‘s plan to build an Islamic cultural center (complete with prayer room) two blocks from Ground Zero as disturbing as it is disappointing. President Obama, who many Tea Partiers and their sympathizers steadfastly and mistakenly believe to be Muslim himself, seems less successful than his predecessor at getting people to understand that we are at war with al-Qaida, not Islam.
Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators were associated with the Christian Identity movement, whose members believe God has called them to wage a race war and overthrow the U.S. government. Yet I never heard anyone demand that no church, Christian Science Reading Room or YMCA should be built near the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Maybe that’s because most people realize that one violent individual’s or sect’s demented interpretation of the Bible doesn’t have anything to do with Christians as a whole.
But the level of illogical thought and hyberbolic hysteria being brought to bear in the discussion over the Islamic center in New York is truly astonishing. I have seen several versions of the sign at right in photographs of groups protesting the location of this building (which is not a mosque). The hatefulness of this sentiment is staggering. I would like to ask these placard bearers if their statement applies to the graves of the 60 Muslims who were killed on 9/11—including first responders, World Trade Center workers, and American Airlines hostages. And if they are offended by the thought of a Muslim gathering place near Ground Zero, why isn’t the presence of Muslims anywhere in New York an affront to the dead? Shouldn’t we ship them all off to internment camps, like we did with Japanese-Americans during World War II? But then, wouldn’t allowing them to live at all be an insult to the victims who lost their lives?
As ridiculous and spiteful as I find that sign, this one is in a class by itself. As much as anything, I am offended by the author’s poor analogy making ability. Since the Nazi Party was Christian, if anyone was proposing to build a mosque at Ground Zero (which they aren’t) it would be like building a church at Auschwitz. Conversely, building a memorial at Auschwitz to the person responsible for the Holocaust would be like building a memorial to Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero, which of course, no one is proposing and anyone but a member of al-Qaida, regardless of their religious faith (or lack of one), would oppose. (The degree of hysteria necessary to come up with such a bizarre hypothetical scenario reminds me of a short-lived comic book series published a few years ago, called Liberality for All, in which the creators portrayed a nightmarish ultra-liberal future where Osama bin Laden is welcomed to the UN to issue an apology for his past misdeeds.)
Last but not least, there is Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has made himself an international celebrity by designating this “Burn a Koran Day.” Fortunately, due to his apparently mistaken belief that Imam Rauf has decided not to build his Islamic center, as I write this, Jones has vowed to call off his bonfire of insanity. Despite my relief over the pastor’s decision to cancel his mind bogglingly irresponsible plan, while I fully understand the desire to prevent possible deaths from terrorist reprisals, I’m not entirely comfortable with this argument for canceling the event. I see that as caving in to demands from homicidal lunatics who will happily come up with some other reason to kill us infidels. I think Jones should have canceled the book burning because it is an ignorant, fear mongering act of divisiveness that any spiritual leader should be ashamed to be associated with. (If you’re looking for an alternative activity today, consider participating in “Buy a Qur’an Day.”)
From the jaws of defeat
Intolerance and hate in the name of 9/11 victims is much more of a dishonor to their memories than building a mosque near Ground Zero.
Every person who rejects the kind of inclusiveness that makes New York City the “Cultural Capital of America” leaves another hole in the Manhattan skyline and helps pull apart the tightly woven fabric of nationalities, races and religions that makes our country the most diverse in the world.
On a day when we remember the terrible pain we endured as a nation at the hands of narrow-minded, violent fundamentalists, the best thing we can do to heal our collective wounds is to celebrate the common bonds we all share as Americans and human beings.
We have enough real enemies in this world. We shouldn’t turn on each other.