On the morning of September 11, 2001, a morning that I remember very clearly, my fellow college students and I gathered in the common room of our dorm to watch the news. It was scary, the images we saw on TV. We huddled together, some of us scared, some of us angry, all of us confused and uncertain. Over the days and weeks that followed we learned more about this “Act of Terror” about the terrorists responsible, about how we should get back to our lives and not allow the terrorists to win. The terrorists winning, it was claimed, meant that we would be too scared to go to shops and markets, that we wouldn’t be able to continue on with our normal lives. The terrorists, it was claimed, hated our way of life and so we had to come together to preserve our way of life. This rationale lead many to believe that the best course of action was to go to war against “terrorists,” against nations who harbored terrorists or funded them. If you aren’t with us you are against us, the common refrain of the Bush administration. To be “with us” meant that you did not harbor terrorists, you did not fund them, you did not allow them to flourish in your land. To be “with us” meant you gave us financial and military support to American interests, to be “with us” meant that you believed in “Freedom.”
There were people then, back in those strange early years of this millennium, who saw through the lies and refused to believe that foreign wars were a good idea. They were mocked, their music CDs burned, their ideas challenged. We had to go to war, don’t you see? We need to fight the terrorists who hate our American values, values like freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion. The terrorists don’t like those things, they said, and so we have to stop them before they destroy us. We couldn’t let these terrorist win. These terrorists who destroy art, who persecute gays and religious minorities, who treat women like chattel. We couldn’t let the terrorists win. How would they destroy us? Did they have aircraft carriers and airplanes to fly over our cities? No they had suicide bombers. They had people who could come into American cities and blow themselves up. We need to be watchful of them, distrustful of people who are different, mindful. We have to watch out because these terrorists could be lurking on every corner. But we can’t let the terrorist win by being too scared. So we need to keep shopping, keep spending, keep living our lives, keep upholding our American values, “come together” as a nation, “united and strong.”
In the years that followed we learned that the reasons for going to war had been somewhat fabricated, but really it didn’t matter TOO too much. I mean we were still justified going there weren’t we? They hated our American values, still. They hated everything it was to be American. Maybe the wars weren’t 100% justified, but they were still, ya know, bad. There were still people out there who wanted to harm America, who wanted to unravel our nation, who wanted to make us scared. Terrorists. We couldn’t let them win. Don’t let the terrorists win.
Un-American. That was what we were called if we opposed Bush and his policies. Un-American. A true American supports their country, supports their president, supports our troops. Un-American. Back in the 50s they called people Un-American when they spied for the Russians, or if they had “sympathies” or if they “consorted” with people who were or were suspected of being Communists, socialists, anarchists. Those weren’t American values. Or something. Real Americans care about America, protect America, believe in America. Only people who are Un-American would support foreigners over their own people, only terrorists would try to create fear and chaos. Don’t let the terrorists win.
Then, in November 2008, a young Senator from Illinois was elected President of the United States. Immediately, from the moment he was elected, there were questions regarding his legitimacy, his origin of birth, his “allegiances.” These same people who called me Un-American for questioning a war we should have never started were now openly calling their president racial slurs, disrespecting him and his family, insisting that he wasn’t a “real” American, that he was a Muslim, that he was false. Republican Congresspeople, obstructionists to their very core, did everything they could to block as much as they could, even things that would help the fundamentals of government to run. They simply could not allow him to be in control.
It was at this time that I finally began my awakening. You can’t really choose when you begin to see. For me it started with the early days of Obama’s presidency. I attended his inauguration, I was so hopeful about the future, and then I heard months and months and years of nothing but vitriol spewed about this man, our president. Wasn’t that, dare I say it, Un-American? How were these same people who said we must stand by Bush at all costs now doing just the opposite with Obama? Oh right. They are racists. Now, I knew there were racists out there. In middle school and high school I was called anti Semitic slurs by a few classmates. In college in St Louis I saw how segregation and racist attitudes affected people I knew. But I guess, and here’s where I am really showing my naivete, I just thought that the racists were an anomaly, a thing of the past, or a thing of the “South” or a thing for “hillbillies.” Now with Obama in charge I saw something different. I saw racism everywhere. I saw that even some of these racists who called Obama a Muslim and questioned his legitimacy, who called him the worst president ever (which is, just patently false really), did not consider themselves racists. In fact, they would proclaim from the highest mountain that it has nothing to do with race that they like Black people but it’s just about policies right, they just don’t agree with him. That’s all it is. Uh huh. I saw through them, I began to really see.
A thing happened with the expansion of social media, with the growth of the internet: I saw things, heard things, listened to things that I never saw before. Young black men being gunned down in the streets by cops, people facing harassment for being Muslim, transwomen beaten or killed. Certainly this had gone on for ages, for as long as our nation has been around but how was I do know, young white woman that I was. When had they talked about this in high school, in COLLEGE. When had somebody explained to me what was going on? Nobody did. I never heard those voices before. Certainly the news never showed the whole story. All we used to get was a brief mention of a police involved shooting occasionally, most of the time the stories never even made the nightly news. So I listened, I read and I came to my second awakening, my second realization. The idea of America, that America those flag waving Bush followers told us we must love and support against all costs, is an America for white straight Christian men. When America starts to become too “gay,” too “Black,” too “Latino,” too “Muslim,” too “Jewish,” too “elite,” to them it ceases to be America. Therefore in their minds it is not un-American to disrespect or challenge this false America.
The changing demographics, the changing attitudes of young people, all of these were taking away the thing they thought of as most American: white supremacy. And it was true, white supremacy is as essential to our American experiment as anything. This fetishization of the flag, of the idealized past, are all attempts at recapturing an era where their white supremacy went unchallenged. It wasn’t so much that things were different in practice, after all there were still so many oppressed by our white supremacist culture, only that people knew about them now in way they ignored before, only that people in power said something about it, people who were oppressed had a voice and a medium with which to express their discontent. These white supremacists wanted to go back to a time when those people talking about white supremacy, challenging it, would go back in their place and just love this beautiful flag, this beautiful emblem of colonization, control, and racial oppression. As a white woman I have a place of privilege in this America. As a Jew and as a woman not quite as high a place as a Christian man, but still a place. I benefited and continue to benefit from the white supremacy in my ignorance, and as I grew to learn just how much I became disheartened, angry. We needed to do more.
So I knew. This whole campaign I knew. I knew that Drumpf and those who followed him were white supremacists, I knew that there were people who hated the few progressive changes we had made and wanted to fight back against them. I knew that the people who defended cops who shot unarmed people of color had racial biases. I knew that the justice system didn’t serve them, that they were left behind. I thought I understood. I thought I understood all that. What I didn’t know, what I foolishly, foolishly didn’t know, was how many of them there were. I didn’t understand. When I saw the KKK support him I thought that surely this would mean that people would open their eyes and realize who it was they were voting for. When he talked about Mexicans as rapists, when he talked about deporting Muslims, I thought that surely his supports must be a minority, surely. Many established Republicans spoke out against him, though certainly not enough, but I thought that their voices were echoed in other Republicans throughout the nation. I thought more of them would vote for Gary Johnson if they really hated Hillary so much. Surely they would have to vote for somebody else but Trump, right? How could they vote for him? He wasn’t just a product of white supremacy like every other candidate, like Hillary was even. He was something different from Bush, from Nixon, from just a regular Conservative. Couldn’t they see? He was… he is…
What was he? Who is he? A man who talks openly about taking our freedoms away. A man who flagrantly spits on the Constitution. A man who disrespects women and treats them like property. A man who was supported by shady operatives of a foreign government. A man who stokes the flames of racial divisiveness without even a gloss of caring about others. A man who is beloved by hate groups. He was… he is… The word was there on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t find it until I woke up this morning. Last night as I cried in bed hold my knees to my chest, my whole body shaking, I went online to see that many of my friends and family were the same. They were drinking, they were crying, they were holding each other. What was going to happen? How could this happen? What were we going to do? Who is responsible for this? How can we stop them? What can we do? What can we do? I have had chronic anxiety before. This was different from the generalized anxiety I had years ago. This was collective. People weren’t just sad, it went beyond sadness. People weren’t just angry, it went beyond anger. People weren’t just scared. It was more than being scared or anxious. It was…
Terror. It was terror. The feeling we were experiencing was terror. It was a terror that people felt in marketplaces in Iraq. It was terror with a capital T. It was Terror. I thought back to the last time I felt so scared and it was on that morning 15 years ago in the lounge of my dorm room, a 19 year old girl watching buildings falling down. This time it wasn’t buildings. It was the entire fabric of everything I thought was real, everything I understood that was collapsing around me. And who had caused this? Who did this?
I had a name for him, the man who will live in the White House but whom I will never call my president: terrorist. I thought I understood things but I didn’t. I thought the only monsters were the ones at his rallies. I didn’t realize there were so many among us, so many terror cells lurking in every state, in every city throughout our nation. Every day people of color go out the door in fear of their lives from police. Every time they are pulled over they have a lingering dread. This kind of terror might not be new for some of them, but certainly this election means something more. This Terror with a capital T has swept this nation. And I have no good solutions. As we’ve learned from previous wars on terror, they very rarely go our way. We always underestimate the terrorists, and our actions are often the cause of even more hatred. I have no answers. I don’t know what to do right now. Dreams of Star Wars rebellion or armed insurrection are nonsensical fantasies.