Eighteen years ago, I stood in front of the television in my small Upper West Side Manhattan bedroom talking to my sister in Chicago about the developing situation at the World Trade Center. At that point, only one tower was impacted, and the reporters we watched together had more guesses than they had conclusions. Suddenly, mid-conversation, we watched as a second airplane struck the other tower. We were under attack.
My wife was working in lower Manhattan, though not close enough to the World Trade Center to worry that she was in imminent danger. Nevertheless, I begged her to come home. The subways were stopped. Buses were filled beyond capacity. I told her to walk if necessary. She ultimately stayed at her office. To this day, I vividly remember the smoke rising above the ashes which we could see outside our apartment window for days. But what still gives me goosebumps is the sight of the bus stops wallpapered with placards, each with photos, a phone number, and the desperate supplication, “Have you see my loved one?”
Eighteen years later, we live in a profoundly different world. What is, perhaps, the most striking difference between September 10, 2001 and today is that today we live in fear.
Last week I had the occasion to co-teach a group of senior Jewish residents at a local assisted living community. Sitting beside a rabbinic colleague, we opened a discussion about current affairs. My colleague asked the group what about current affairs caused them the greatest anxiety. A woman across the table was quick to answer, “Being forced to leave.” Two or three others nodded in agreement.
Let that sink in for a moment. Sitting around the table was a group of Jewish seniors, some of them were Holocaust survivors, others fought with the allies to liberate the Jews. And for those around the table who were neither survivor nor soldier, they were old enough to be alive during World War II, most with their own memories of hearing about the atrocities. And the first thing that came to mind among this group when asked about their greatest fear was being forced to leave.
While expulsion may be hardwired into the national Jewish consciousness, what was to follow was not residual trauma from the Exodus from Egypt. Instead, it was an eyes-wide-open assessment of rapid deterioration of Lady Liberty’s promise to offer sanctuary to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, coupled with a remembrance of Martin Niemoller’s warning that next, “they came for me.” There was genuine concern among several of the people in that room that we could be next.
The president would tell you that the greatest threat to our security comes from the unwelcome others. Just this week, as Bahamians are starting to dig out of their post-hurricane hell, rather than expressing sympathy and support for the people of the Bahamas, President Trump instead warned Americans of danger from the island-nation’s “very bad” people if the United States loosened its immigration laws to allow those seeking refuge into our borders. Trump has vilified Muslims, Mexicans, Haitians, Africans, and countless others, stoking fears that their “infestations” will bring crime, drugs, rape, murder, and terrorist attacks in the image of 9/11. And yet, just days before commemorating the worst attack on contiguous American soil, he boasted by Tweet that he arranged and subsequently cancelled meetings with Taliban leadership which were to have been hosted at Camp David.
The Trump camp is able to justify discrimination and mistreatment because it is conducted in the name of false patriotism and national security. The treatment of immigrants on our southern border is far surpassed soft core injustice. Just last week Rep. Steve King assured a crowd that toilet water at a detention facility was “actually pretty good,” in response to allegations that migrants were told to drink from toilets. King’s casual brush-off was nothing short of pure indignity coming from an elected U.S. Representative as real people are suffering and children are being separated from their parents. Just today, the Supreme Court allowed Trump to deny asylum to many fleeing Central American countries.
The seniors who sat before me at last week’s class understood George Santayana’s prophecy that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And they also believed that when an autocrat seeks to establish an us vs. them dynamic by demonizing a specific demographic, persecution can be popularly justified as a necessary step to combat a fabricated clear and present danger to national security. So when one woman quickly declared that “being forced to leave” was her greatest fear, she was looking at current affairs through an historical lens, and she saw dark clouds gathering.
I was never afraid for my own safety on 9/11. I do not feel a sense of impending danger when I board an airplane. The passenger who wants to talk when I want to sleep causes me more anxiety than the Muslim passenger across the aisle ever would. I am far more concerned about the man standing in line in front of me with a Confederate Flag on his t-shirt than I am about the woman behind me with the hijab on her head. And more than I fear an infiltration and infestation of “very bad people” seeking asylum from hurricanes, domestic abuse, economic collapse, and civil unrest, I am deeply afraid of the dissolution of our nation’s democracy and our personal freedom.