By Jaswinder Bolina / Special To The Washington Post
Nobody mistakes me for a terrorist anymore.
Those days when the Transportation Security Administration agents searched my bag twice at the checkpoint and once at the gate, and regularly pulled me — at random, they said — out of line to be wanded and frisked, when strangers eyed me with suspicion anywhere I lingered too long, seem mostly to have passed. Too middle-aged now, too often accompanied by my spouse and kid, even when I grow a beard, I don’t attract the same attention.
In those earliest years after 9/11, the simple sight of my brown skin and black facial hair invited fear and aggression. Once, at a Lowe’s in Ohio, a boy clutched his grandfather’s leg upon seeing me take a spot in line behind them. The old man held the kid close and told him, “He’s gonna get you.” He glared at me so we both understood why he said it.
Still, for every menacing scowl, for every time someone followed me through a parking lot or hurled a slur from a passing car, I got off easy. Others with whom I share a Sikh heritage did not. On Sept. 15, 2001, a racist murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi for nothing more than the sight of his turban and beard.
I have never worn a turban. I don’t observe any faith, and even if I did, I’m as American as any racist claiming this country for himself. But I, like thousands of other bystanders, whether Muslim or mistaken for Muslim, have faced innumerable acts of hatred, subtle and overt, these past 20 years.
As we remember and mourn the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as we remember and mourn the lives lost to two decades of warfare, I want to remember those other victims, too; those terrorized by reactionary fear and violence.
I remember the anguish of that September morning, the horror that knotted the mind. We didn’t know what might happen next, didn’t know the breadth of the plot. In that unknowing is a suffocating anxiety, a crushing helplessness. You just want it to stop.
That feeling is the thing we call terror, is what makes an attack an act of terrorism. It has nothing to do with religion, race or a perpetrator’s country of origin. Terrorism might be committed in the name of a credo, but its defining characteristic is the crippling fear it seeks to engender in its victims.
In this, the attacks of 9/11 are not so different in their intent or consequence than the attack by a supremacist on a Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Wisconsin, than the attack by a supremacist on the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, than the attacks by supremacists and bigots on mosques and Muslims across the United States and abroad. Even when born of discrimination, terrorist violence is deliberately indiscriminate. The terrorist assigns guilt too broadly, and punishes too blindly, as he seeks to teach us the lesson that any one of us might be next.
We’re raised believing intolerance is an outcropping of ignorance, that violence is the work of a few bad apples. But the grandfather clutching his boy isn’t a bad apple or merely ignorant. He is fearful. Terrorized by someone else’s attack, he seeks an easy marker he can use to identify the next threat to himself and all he holds dear. This is how he becomes a racist, how he finds himself glaring at his neighbor standing harmlessly in ripped jeans and a beat-up old Cubs hat in the hardware store.
Now, two decades after 9/11, facing a new threat in the form of an indiscriminate virus, the fearful among us are again spraying their ire wildly. Wracked by helplessness, they lash out at scientists, health-care workers and public servants. Worst of all, they’re again deploying race as an easy marker, assigning blame to Asian Americans and punishing blindly. Where the fearful could find empathy and solidarity in a national cause, they are targeting their neighbors, fellow victims of this crisis, then victimizing them further; as if this might make it all stop.
They cannot make it stop, not isolated by their fear, but this is why they attack us, why they threaten communities and lives; telling us to go back to our countries, ignoring the fact that we are in our country. It isn’t that the racists can’t comprehend that we belong to this place. It’s that they’re too afraid to care.
As we remember and mourn one crisis while caught in the terrorizing throes of another, I hope we might also remember a lesson from an earlier crisis, and one taught in U.S. history classes in every American school. Faced with terror, there is only one thing we have to fear, and we are better when we face it together.
Jaswinder Bolina is a poet and essayist whose latest books include “Of Color” and “The 44th of July.”