At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was living in southern California, teaching at Cypress College. On the day of the attacks, tensions on campus were running high. The following day, the student government organized an open forum for the students to express their feelings. They asked me to be the moderator.
One by one the student spoke out, expressing their fear, their confusion, and their anger. Finally, one student said the following: “I know that all Arabs and Muslims aren’t terrorists, but some are. So, we need to be suspicious of all of them.”
There were shouts of approval from many of the assembled students. The Arab and Muslim students shouted back angrily. It seemed as if we were on the verge of a riot.
I raised my voice, addressing the student who had made the comment. “Prior to yesterday, what was the biggest terrorist attack in the U.S.?” I asked him.
“The Oklahoma City bombing,” he replied.
“That’s right, “ I said, addressing the whole room. “And the terrorists responsible for that bombing, what race were they?”
“White,” someone shouted.
“Yes, they were white. Should we be suspicious of all white people?” They were also veterans. Should be suspicious of all veterans? They were Christians. Should be suspicious of all Christians?”
Tensions in the room subsided and civility was restored.
Unfortunately, at the same time, violence was erupting outside that auditorium. Over the next few days, there were a series of hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs and people who were mistaken for Arabs, like turbaned Sikhs. As a human being, I felt compelled to do something. As an educator, I saw another teachable moment.
I got right to work. I organized a forum on the treatment of ethnic minorities in wartime. The speakers included the leaders of American Arab and Muslim organizations and a representative from the U.S. Dept. of Justice. But perhaps the most compelling speaker was John Saito, a man who had spent three years of his childhood imprisoned by the U.S. government solely because he was of Japanese ancestry. He was one of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
Around 700 students attended the forum. In the weeks that followed, the incidence of hate crimes in the community dropped significantly. I’d like to think that the forum contributed to reestablishing peace and harmony at the college and in the wider community. I believe that when prejudice and fear divide a community, rational discussion and compassion can help to bring people back together.
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