Any loss of life through indiscriminate violence is to be mourned and its perpetrators brought to justice. But the value of life and the principle of justice do not only apply to American citizens. Without liberty, there is no life, without life there is no liberty.
This weekend, as a field producer for local Catholic news, I stood in the midst of two profound gatherings for remembrance and prayer marking the 10-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2011. Though I was present as a journalist looking through a camera, I was grateful for the chance to reflect on this anniversary in these public and intimate contemplations of the highest of human values: compassion and courage.
Retelling ”moment when” stories of 9/11 over the last 10 years sheds light on how we all united and diverged at that moment. The most common theme I’ve heard is the horror and shock of being jolted from “watching a movie” to waking up to reality. Like many, my priorities and my purpose in life changed, but then I found that my values diverged from many of the loudest voices in our public square.
I learned how my own government was chronically lying to its people and to the world in prosecuting the so-called “War on Terror.” I was galvanized to not passively accept this secrecy and unaccountability and I began seeking out stories of human lives caught up the aftermath of 9/11, which took place in several waves.
The first "9/11 detainees," numbering more than a thousand, were Arab, South Asian and Muslim noncitizens trumpeted as "suspected terrorists" by our Attorney General when in fact none of them were ever charged or convicted of terrorism. Shokriea Yaghi found herself suddenly a single mother of two boys when her husband was effectively disappeared. (This story was told in Life or Liberty)
The Absconder Initiative targeted some 6,000 deportable aliens for arrest and interrogation, with the same results. This flagrant violation of due process may have been the pretext for arresting Palestinian activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti, a man I came to know as a friend whose courage transformed my own life. (This story was told in Farouk: Political Prisoner and Enemy Alien)
Special Registration, the largest and most heinous act of racial profiling since the internment of Japanese Americans, required 80,000 noncitizens to report for fingerprinting and questioning solely based on nationality and triggered deportation proceedings for 13,000 of them. The Alam family was one of the thousands this policy threatened to tear apart, but through their courage and the involvement of South Asian organization D.R.U.M. (Desis Rising Up and Moving) they fought back. (This story was told in Rising Up: The Alams)
In the ongoing domestic sphere of “counterterrorism,” militarized institutions under enormous pressure to find terrorism suspects begin to literally produce them through racist arrests and detentions, the criminalization of noncitizens and the use of paid informants to entrap people in fictitious “terror plots.”
To value American lives we need not devalue “other” lives, whether these are “others” abroad or living within our own borders yet separated by laws and practices of oppression and exclusion. How many Americans will pause to remember the innocent lives lost to “collateral damage” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and around the world in the War on Terror?
In the car that took me home from today’s memorial service, the Pakistani driver told me about his visits back to his home country. On these visits he’s seen towns overrun with an army on constant rampages against its own citizens in its hunt for “extremists” and instead murdering innocents, thus guaranteeing a cycle of civil violence with no end in sight.
The name of the project I started in 2002, Life or Liberty, refers to the impossible choice our government presents to its people in times of war. Life and liberty are the two most axiomatic rights our Declaration of Independence sets forth in its phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To divorce life from liberty is to nullify both. Without liberty, there is no life, without life there is no liberty.