It has been 16 years since that horrific day. Sixteen years have passed and so have 3,000+ people. Yes, it was just over a decade and a half since four planes were hijacked and used as weapons against the citizenry of the United States. The first two planes hit both towers of the World Trade Center here in NYC. Another hit the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The final plane was intentionally crashed in an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Many people naturally fled the areas fearing more attacks while a brave few ran toward the crash sites in the hopes of rescuing as many people as they could. Many, unfortunately, perished in what had to be the worst attack since Pearl Harbor and, without question, the worst attack in my lifetime.
Since then, I have had questions about myself, questions that only I may have the answers. Still, it would help me to verbalize them in order to get the answer.
Am I a bigot?
I am a diehard Catholic since I was born. I attend Mass and do my best to do good. At the same time, I also accept the fact that I am a flawed human being. I never claim perfection and don't attempt to do so either. I am simply me. For the sake of my discourse, I am not looking at my religious side, but my daily life instead.
I am a native New Yorker. I have been to other places in my life, but I only like visiting them—Atlantic City, Montreal, Toronto, Sacramento, and Los Angeles just to name a few. No matter where I went and how much I enjoyed being there, New York always puts a huge smile on my face because it is my home. Keep in mind that ALL of these places have been visited prior to 2001. Today, however, New York is a much different place.
Since my parents have died of natural causes over the last few years, I have been housesitting for the time being. Lately, I decided to escape the specter of death for a while by taking a mental health day once or twice a week. The purpose is to get away from some tough memories and recharge my motivational battery. So, I decided to take my car and go on some errands taking the scenic route going to and coming from my destination. Those rides are very helpful.
One day while I was on my mental health ride, I noticed something that really bothered me. The neighborhood and all of the areas that I used to visit on a daily basis had undergone a change. I am not talking about the expected changes like new buildings, new cars, road changes, and so forth. No. I noticed that some food eateries started serving halal products. Some signs were written in Arabic. Even more so, there were women walking around in burkas. I have never seen this before. Correction! I have seen this before—on the news! I felt very uneasy, but I never spoke to anyone about it. I was scared.
If I was to check on the definition of fear, it would probably say that it is the uncertainty about what is to come. I am sure that if we were to walk into a very dark room without even an outline of what is in front of us and not one bit of light whatsoever, we would have an idea of what fear is. If we were stupid enough to decide to walk through Central Park at the height of darkness in a blackout instead of taking a route outside of the park, the person who wised up in the middle of their CP walk would be able to define fear as well. So, why am I scared?
In my brief studies of our Muslim neighbors, I learned about them. I learned that, in some cases, they will proselytize. They will give you a choice to convert to their faith or die. Obviously, I do not choose to do either. There are other things that I have learned that scare me as well, but it goes against what I have learned about them before the 9/11 attacks. I learned that there are good Muslims out here as well. There are people who, like me, are just trying to live their life as peacefully as they can. They are not out to hurt anyone. In fact, they are out to help everyone. I can clearly cite two perfect examples.
My first example is a guy named Hussain. He was a science teacher at a school I worked in. I was the Dean of Discipline for my 7th grade and he was one of my teachers in that grade. He was a quiet-spoken individual who was tough when needed. He was a very pleasant person with a great sense of humor. One of my many duties in school involved AM and PM patrol. My PM patrol involved me making sure that all students went directly home, did not go to the local stores or get into fights in the area. I would often travel with another dean and, like the police, we would cover each other in the event of danger. So, if I had to break up a fight, he would be on the school patrol radio informing the school administration of our situation and then help me to break up the fight. Then, we would bring any offenders back to school so that we could get to the bottom of the situation and call the parents to pick them up. One day, Hussain surprised me. He asked if he could join me on PM patrol. I said "Sure" and now we were a three person patrol. I had no radio to give him, but he did not mind.
After our patrols were over, WE used to stop at a local candy store to pick up a refreshment due to the fact that our day was so busy, we never had a chance to enjoy a lunch period to ourselves. We decided that we would each take turns buying something for the other two. When my turn came, I bought for the other dean. Then, when I asked Hussain what he wanted, he politely refused. At first, I was upset. I was hoping that I did not offend him. He then explained that he was a Muslim and that he was observing Ramadan, a period that called upon him to fast and atone for his sins. That is when I was taught my first lesson about Islam. I knew that he was a Muslim, but he was not like any Muslim that I had pictured. I realized that I could have been on a subway, a bus, or even in a crowded room with other Muslims and not known about it at all. Why was I being so unreasonable up until now?
We kept on with our new patrol for the rest of the year. By the end of the summer, Hussain an I moved on to different schools while our other partner retired. Hussain taught me more about Islam every day than he ever realized. But, that was June of 2000 when that school year ended. None of us had any idea of what was to come.
September 11, 2001 started out as a normal Tuesday morning. It was sunny. I was in class and I thought of nothing but getting through what I thought would be a normal second full day of school. Shortly before 9 AM, the school custodian came to my classroom and informed me that the Twin Towers in Manhattan were knocked down. Honestly, I thought that he was trying out either a very late April Fool's joke or a very early April Fool's joke. Either way, it just wasn't funny. Then, I realized that it was no joke at all. Parent after parent came to school to retrieve their child. Some parents were crying and so forth. Within an hour and a half, my class had shrunk from 32 students to 3. I then escorted them down to our first floor as instructed. There, the final three parents came for their children.
I went into my principal's office where she had a TV tuned into the news of the day. I then saw the footage of the two planes hitting the towers. I could not believe my eyes. Was this an excerpt from an upcoming Hollywood movie? It looked so realistic. No, Hollywood was not involved. Those were actual planes hitting the actual buildings causing actual deaths. This was reality, not Hollywood.
For days, even weeks, I was scared. Was this it? Were there more plans in the works? They used planes today. What would be used tomorrow? It was already established during the first reports that Muslim terrorists had carried out the dastardly plan. Why?
I listened to TV, radio, and even word of mouth. Understandably, all I heard was the vitriol against Muslims. Hussain was a Muslim, yet he was not like that. I read tons of newspapers and articles about the attacks and Muslims in general. At that point, however, I forgot about my friend—my Muslim friend. I called Hussain and sent him my prayer of support. Because he was a traditional Muslim, I gave him my support because I was only able to imagine the trouble he was having from those who wanted to carry out their anger on him. Why? He had nothing to do with it. What also made me feel even more is that there were innocent people of ALL faiths on the planes in the buildings, planes and—yes—the rescue squads. People of all faiths, ages and genders died that day. The Muslim terrorists did not care who they killed even if it was their own people. All who claimed to be Americans had died that day.
Another person I cite is my mechanic. His name is Tony. He is one of the nicest guys I ever met. Yes, he is a Muslim. He is a hardworking man who is very nice and helpful to others. Like Hussain, I found him to be a very pleasant individual. An added plus is that I had the pleasure of teaching both of his sons—Sean and Keith. Like their parents, both gentlemen were quiet and very hard working individuals. Because I taught Tony's son's, I got to meet his wife and his sister. To this very day, I have always considered them to be almost like family to me. Again, he is nothing like the stereotypical Muslim as described in our daily news. He is a good man who I hold in high regard and give much respect. Sometimes, Tony and I would engage in political conversations or just talk about things in general.
You would think that an African-American man like me would understand what my Muslim brethren are going through. Yes, I am uneasy at times. I am sure that many of us are. Then again, I am constantly reminded that there are still white people who may look at me and cross a busy street out of fear that I am going to rob them even though I never have any plans to do so. I am sure that people look at my black skin and assume that this huge Sinatra fan is heavily into rap music. I most certainly am not. I am sure that some white people may wonder how good I am at basketball when my favorite sports are—in no particular order—bike racing, baseball, and judo. Why am I uneasy? I should be more sympathetic.
Wikipedia describes fear very nicely. "Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis."
Am I a bigot? To answer my own question, no I am not. I DO recognize that there are good people and bad people in all walks of life—good Black Americans and bad Black Americans, good Catholics and bad Catholics, good teachers and bad teachers. Good police and bad police. Yes, good Muslims and bad Muslims. I just happened to name two good Muslims and I am sure that I will meet more good Muslims just like I will meet more good Catholics.
In conclusion, I did do something about one of my fears. I bought myself a military-grade tactical flashlight so that I won't walk into an extremely dark room, trip over a small table and bust my leg open... again.