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Column: The day the world changed, and I changed

For the Valley News
Published: 9/10/2021 10:09:55 PM
Modified: 9/10/2021 10:10:05 PM

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, a day bright, clear and full of hope, I embraced a young Palestinian student at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I’d met him at a summer camp in Maine called Seeds of Peace and introduced him to Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., where my daughter was a student and where I occasionally helped out with Muslim and Middle Eastern students.

“How was your flight?”

“Great. I flew from Amman to Newark where I went through customs, then caught the connection to Boston!”

We located his luggage and hit the road for Exeter for the start of a new school year.

We left Boston around 8 a.m., within minutes, perhaps, of the hijackings of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175.

We never turned on the radio. He talked about leaving his family, his excitement about starting school, and spoke of seeing New York from the air: “The pilot banked the plane so we could see the World Trade Center. It was really beautiful with morning sun on it.”

It wasn’t until we got to Exeter that we learned of the attacks. Not until I was home with my daughter did I witness the towers fall.

On that day the world changed. We as a people and a nation changed. I changed.

Anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Other rhetoric roiled America and Islamophobia erupted as Muslims and Arabs and people who looked like me and them were targeted. I, who had unthinkingly passed as white for most of my life, had to choose who I would stand with going forward: those who believed only in “America, right or wrong,” or those committed to the values upon which this nation was created — that all people are created equal — even in bad times.

It was an easy choice. I stand there still.

On Sept. 14, at a whole-school interfaith service, two Muslim students began to recite — in Arabic and English — the Fatihah, the opening prayer in the Quran: “All Praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, Lord of the Day of Judgment! Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid.”

Then I heard a young student in the audience say quietly, “First they blow up our buildings, then we have to listen to them pray.”

The day confirmed to me, as I listened to Fatihah and to the student’s impulsive utterance, that our world would never be the same. Muslims would be profiled, arrested, attacked and killed, mosques would be desecrated, hate and ignorance would rage in the media and turbaned Sikhs and bearded Armenians would be attacked because of the way they looked.

It was relentless, and it hasn’t ended.

By Sept. 18, our government voted nearly unanimously to go to war, not just in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida had sanctuary, but against all those “responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida,” President George W. Bush said. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”

Bush was correct: In Afghanistan alone it lasted 7,262 days — and we lost.

We lost in part because too many in power believed military force could defeat radical ideologies, and in part because too many failed to understand that the radical ideologies embraced by extremist groups were based on delusional religious beliefs designed to exploit deeply seated grievances and resentments.

We lost in part because not enough people truly believed in the fullness of America.

At one point, our government held 762 people, including citizens, for three to eight months, many in solitary confinement with regular strip searches. As reported in The Guardian, a federal appeals court “described evidence showing detainees’ abuse included slamming them into walls; bending or twisting their arms, hands, wrists and fingers; stepping on their leg restraints; leaving them handcuffed or shackled in their cells; and insulting their religion or making humiliating sexual comments during strip searches.”

America, tragically, became what the terrorists described it, and us, as being — not who we needed to be in times of crisis.

As we remember 9/11, lawyers at Guantanamo Bay are debating whether to continue — after nearly 18 years of detention — the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed strategist of 9/11 who’s yet to be tried for his crimes against humanity. That’s because he was tortured — he was waterboarded 183 times — and because he and other detainees were waterboarded, sleep-deprived, walled and short-shackled at multiple black sites. He’s yet to be tried because we’re a values-based nation — because no matter how vile a person is, testimony elicited through torture is unacceptable.

Today, at Guantanamo, ostensibly established to detain dangerous people labeled “unlawful combatants” who “do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention,” 39 men remain, 27 of whom have never been charged.

That’s who we are.

Terrorists in the name of Islam committed 9/11. But for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, what happened on 9/11 is no more related to Islam than domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was related to Christianity.

Innocent Muslims also died on 9/11. Muslims were among the first responders on 9/11, and among the first troops deployed to Afghanistan.

They defended and died for America because they believed in who we are.

Yet, I am not without hope.

This week, in an inspired gesture of healing, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, while apologizing for the ADL’s 2010 opposition to Cordoba House (the Ground Zero Mosque) wrote: “We have seen Muslims demonized in recent years in ways that make the heart ache. … We are better than this. We actively can choose not only to reject hate, but to embrace those in need. ADL’s stance on Cordoba House was an error that pales alongside the abrupt abandonment of our Afghan allies, but all of us should draw upon our better angels and welcome those poor and huddled masses who today seek our support.”

I am not without hope.

My Palestinian student friend is now an American citizen. Having graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, and from Dartmouth College with a doctorate, he’s currently doing medical research and thriving — aspiring to fulfill the American Dream.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Robert Azzi, of Exeter, N.H., is a photographer and writer and winner of the 2018 Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ First Amendment Award. His columns are archived at and he can be reached at

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