"He asked me 'where are you from?' and that's a strange question to ask in a robbery. As soon as I said 'excuse me?' I heard an explosion and felt the sensation of a million bees stinging my face." - Rais Bhuiyan
In the days following those horrific attacks that shook the United States at its core, a dangerous attitude of blind anger and retribution pervaded through the country and parts of the world. And it was such an attitude that brought Mark Stroman, a self-described "Arab slayer" armed with a gun, to a gas station in Texas. Ignorantly assuming the three men behind the counter were Arabs and therefore responsible for the terrorist attacks, Stroman shot them all. Two of the men, Vasudev Patel (an Indian immigrant who was a Hindu) and Waqar Hasan (a Muslim born in Pakistan), died on the scene. The third man, Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi-born naturalized US citizen, was shot in the face and blinded in one eye but survived the attack.
There is a moment in every generation that becomes so etched in our collective memory that it really tests our ability to move on. There is a moment that essentially starts a new era, especially if it is one filled with increased violence, unrest and a major breakdown of trust and tolerance. As the United States marks the 10th anniversary of the worst attacks on its soil, we must also not forget what was triggered the day after that tragedy, and has continued since. The country slipped into paranoia, racial bias and hate crimes. This, in turn, set off a decade of wars, further terrorist attacks around the world, and disintegrating rights in the U.S.
The South Asian and Middle Eastern communities have perhaps been most affected in the post-9/11 climate. According to a report published by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), there were 675 reported incidents of backlash, verbally or physically violent, against people of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent in the United States just in the week following 9/11. In these instances, race became interchangeable with religion as members of the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities suffered the brunt of the reaction.
"Traditionally, the South Asian community here has stayed under the radar and been identified as hard working," says Ishita Srivastava of the human rights organization, Breakthrough. "But post-9/11, suddenly the community came to be identified within this broader Muslim-Arab-South Asian blanket net," she adds, "which threw the South Asian community into the spotlight based on religious identity and also just on how people look, on their appearance. People started to be targeted both in the media and also by law enforcement, and this brought about a mood of fear not just in how people viewed the community, but also within the community itself."
The Sikh community bore a major brunt of the backlash after 9/11, based solely on their religious practice of wearing a turban. Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona because he was mistaken for a Muslim, his killer later bragging about getting a "towel head." Ten years later, similar attacks continue. In March this year, two elderly Sikh men - Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal - were shot in another suspected hate crime while on their regular afternoon stroll in a suburb of Sacramento, California. They both eventually succumbed to their injuries.
Along with the public reaction and state of paranoia that spread rapidly across the country after 9/11, law enforcement authorities too played a role in putting a spotlight on South Asians communities by way of targeted checks, profiling, and a wave of severe laws that gradually expanded the effects to other communities of color, including Latino immigrants.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Breakthrough is producing a series of three videos chronicling the stories of individuals and communities facing discrimination and racial profiling, in the hope of empowering various groups to work together for common solutions. The powerfully poignant first video of the series, Checkpoint Nation?: Building Communities Across Borders, takes place at the Arizona-Mexico border and looks at the plight of immigrants facing racial profiling. The video, directed by Srivastava, tells the heartbreaking story of Maria, an immigrant who was subjected to harsh racial profiling as a result of extreme anti-immigrant laws, when she was nine months pregnant.
"The bigger aim of the video is to look at how different communities can and are beginning to come together," says Srivastava. "They are talking about the ways there are connections and links in the history of racial injustice. They share their experiences and find common solutions in which, rather than giving into divisive rhetoric, these communities work together." The video brings together various organizations including Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM).
Breakthrough's two other upcoming videos also touch on similar issues of the way communities have been impacted by the post-9/11 climate. One of them is about a young Sikh boy and his identity as an 18-year-old Sikh American. "The turban is as much a part of his identity as an American as his playing basketball with his friends every day," explains Srivastava. The third video "is the story of two women – one Latino and one South Asian – who both lost their sons in the last 10 years and how they’ve come together despite barriers of language and culture to become advocates for the rights of people from their communities."
As we remember the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, this is an equally important opportunity to call for greater tolerance and understanding. The chain of reactions set off after 9/11 has damaged the social fabric of this country and impacted policies and attitudes around the world, thereby eroding rights to freedom and privacy.
In the case of the hate crime at the Texas gas station, the attacker Mark Stroman ended up on death row. In a surprising twist in the story, his victim Rais Bhuiyan forgave him and campaigned to stop his execution in a bid to encourage a national community of forgiveness, tolerance and healing. Stroman even repented his hate crime, explaining to a BBC reporter, “At that time here in America everybody was saying ‘let’s get them’ — we didn’t know who to get, we were just stereotyping. I stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists and that was wrong.” On July 20, Stroman was killed by lethal injection. His only surviving victim says nothing was gained out of executing Stroman, especially since he could have been a spokesperson for ending ignorance and racial bias.
The reality now is that we live in a time of great uncertainty - politically, economically, and socio-culturally. However, one of the most important ways to forge through is by eliminating ignorance, and racial and religious bias, so 9/11 doesn't come to also signify the day we stopped respecting one another.