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Sept. 11: The Day Hate Became Everyone's Problem
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a national and personal tragedy. It was one of the darkest days in the history of America. Many of us knew people who died that day at the World Trade Center.
But it was also a day of resolve.
For those of us who have been combating hate for decades, we realized that because of the enormous tragedy, Americans could now understand viscerally what they understood only in the abstract until then -- that hate affects us all. So, if the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor was, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the "date that shall live in infamy," 9/11 was the day that hate became everyone's problem.
How have we as a society done since then in addressing the consequences of hate?
The results are somewhat a mixed bag. America has struggled to find the right balance between protecting our nation from terrorist attacks and protecting civil liberties.
We at the Anti-Defamation League recognized that to keep our nation safe at the expense of basic civil rights was to lose our collective soul; we also knew that if we didn't take steps to prevent even worse terrorist assaults in the future, we would risk jeopardizing civil liberties to an even greater extent because people would insist on security no matter the cost.
In resolving debates over police and executive powers -- including the handling of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, curbing material support for terrorists and the increased use of new surveillance warrants -- the nation's institutions and the American people have demonstrated great resilience.
There are other useful barometers of how well we learned the lessons of 9/11. First, there's the challenge of combating Muslim extremists who threaten America here and abroad while, at the same time, avoiding the stereotyping of Muslim Americans.
In the aftermath of the attacks, many high-level civic leaders and public officials responded to the increase in profiling, discrimination and hate violence directed against Muslims, Sikhs, and Arabs by speaking out and strengthening connections with affected communities. Though the number of reported bias crimes directed at Muslim Americans remains unacceptably high, they have diminished since 2001.
Yet, over the last two years we have documented an elevated anti-Muslim atmosphere as seen in campaigns against the building or expansion of mosques in a number of cities and in the anti-Sharia law initiatives in some states.
As a recent Gallup poll indicated, Muslims believe they are doing fairly well in America so the problem should not be overstated. Nevertheless, it is troubling to see the rise in anti-Muslim bigotry.
At the same time, a disturbing new element in the terror threat picture has emerged -- the role a growing number of American citizens and residents motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have played in criminal plots to attack Americans in the United States and abroad.
The past three years in particular have been marked by an increase in the number of plots and conspiracies by homegrown Muslim extremists as well as in the number of Americans attempting to travel abroad to train and fight with terrorist groups. The latter raises serious concerns about extremists using their American passports to return to the United States in order to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.
A key element in containing these threats is the ability of U.S. officials and law enforcement to work with American Muslims. That is just one more reason why stereotypes of Muslims must be avoided. At the same time it is vital for more and more Muslim leaders to speak out unequivocally against Islamic extremism and terrorism.
As part of creating trust, it is also important for U.S. officials to recognize and address other forms of domestic extremism coming from white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and environmental and animal-rights extremists.
Paying serious attention to these movements is the right and smart thing to do. And it will also help allay fears of Muslim Americans that they are being uniquely singled out as the source of anti-American terror in today's world.
Looking back at this period on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we can take satisfaction in the fact that America's democratic principles have broadly withstood these harsh challenges. The fight against hate remains critical as we seek to preserve the values and ideals we most cherish in America.
Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.