‘I am an American’: living September 11, 2001, ten years on

An American professor of international relations who is also a documentary film-maker invites us to share in her unique pursuit of answers to the following question: How can we remember September 11, 2001 as fully as we can, including those things about it we would rather forget? For it is this more complete history that is shaping who we are.

Cynthia Weber
7 September 2011

Julia Shearson, a white US citizen whose family came to America on the Mayflower, recalls that in the run-up to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she ‘felt that the government had been cavalier with the security of the American people’.  But Julia stresses, ‘I never thought that the government would use 9/11 as an excuse to trample down on political dissent or religious freedom.  It just never occurred to me.  But America, whenever it feels like it’s under threat by foreigners from outside, it always tries to find the scapegoat at home.’ 

Julia became such a scapegoat.  It happened when she was returning from a day trip to Canada with her then 4-year-old daughter.  After handing her documents to the customs agent, an alarm sounded and the words ‘armed and dangerous’ flashed on the console in the agent’s booth.  Julia was handcuffed and questioned for several hours. 

‘I just remember seeing these pickup trucks going through [immigration without any problems] and thinking, “Oh, yea.  I used to be one of those ordinary white Americans that nobody paid any attention to, and now I’m something else... this other thing, this Muslim thing’, for, long before September 11, 2001, Julia had felt the call to convert to Islam. 

Julia was neither armed nor dangerous when she tried to re-enter the US from Canada.  So after several hours of detention and questioning, US Immigration agents let her go.  But this disturbing incident stuck with Julia, so she filed a Freedom of Information Act request about her detention to try to understand why it happened.  Months later, she received highly redacted documents that shed little light on her ordeal.  But there was one phrase that Julia believes US officials forgot to black out.  It reads ‘pertaining to terrorism’ and is accompanied by a set of numbers that suggest that Julia Shearson’s name is on one or more Terrorist Watch Lists.

Reciting these numbers in disbelief, Julia tells me, ‘All I am is number 384610 on the Terrorist Watch List. That’s all I am.’

Julia is suing the US government to get her name and her daughter’s name off these Terrorist Watch Lists.  While she has had some success, it remains an uphill battle.  ‘It’s like Hotel California’ Julia explains. ‘You can get on the list, but you can never get off.’

Julia’s story illustrates the well-documented backlash against Muslim, Arab, and  Sikh Americans that occurred in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, as the US embarked upon its global War on Terror.  For Julia, this domestic backlash is not just a chapter in US history that many (although not all) US citizens acknowledge and regret.  It is her life.  As she puts it, ‘The American people don’t have time to think about September 11 anymore.  I guess I live it every day.’ 

Backlash morphing into new forms

As September 11, 2001, becomes an event that most US citizens commemorate yearly rather than live daily, the backlash it inspired against some US citizens is less in the process of receding than it is morphing into new forms.  While Muslim, Arab, and Sikh Americans are still among its targets, so too are US citizens who are not racially or ethnically profiled but politically profiled.

 Consider the following cases: 


Shanti Sellz

Human rights activists Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss transported seriously-ill migrants to hospital and were arrested on charges of smuggling undocumented immigrants, who federal prosecutors suggested might actually be terrorist.  Their case dragged on for a year and a half before the charges were dropped, even though these activists followed a procedure agreed with US Border Patrol. 


Steve Kurtz

Artist and academic Steve Kurtz was suspected of being a bioterrorist when law enforcement officials refused to believe that his biology-based work was about promoting public debate about GMO foods and the uses of human DNA and not about murdering his wife or practicing terrorism.  His case dragged on for four years before all charges were dropped, even though the FBI confirmed that Steve’s wife Hope died of natural causes and all the substances used in his work were benign.

Will Potter

Will Potter

Journalist Will Potter took part in an animal rights leafleting campaign and was told by the FBI that he would be put on the domestic terrorist watch list if he did not inform on his fellow activists, even though leafleting is protected speech under the first amendment.

Placing law-abiding US citizens profiled as Muslims, Arabs and Sikh on Terrorist Watch Lists and implying that law-abiding non-racially and non-ethnically profiled activists, academics, and artists are terrorists or are aiding terrorists has three important effects on post-9/11 US citizens.  It reminds US citizens that access to their rights and freedoms is conditional upon their ability to conform to the ever-changing, amorphous profile of a ‘patriotic US American’.  It encourages all US citizens to toe some patriotically-correct line in the US global War on Terror so that they can maintain their rights and freedoms.  And it makes it all the more difficult for those who are deemed to be ‘intolerably different’ US citizens to be seen to be conforming to this patriotic US American ideal.


Guadalupe Denogean

This is the case not only for the ever-widening categories of US citizens whose presumed differences turn them into domestic scapegoats for failed US foreign policies (e.g., how the Westboro Baptist Church holds queer Americans responsible for the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq).  It is also the case for non-US citizens who feel and act like ‘patriotic US Americans’ and who (seek to) become US citizens.  The stories of Mexican citizen and US Marine Guadalupe Denogean who realized his American Dream of receiving US citizenship only after he was ‘blown up’ in the Iraq War and of new US citizen Abe Dabdoub, who was never stopped and searched upon entering the US until after he became a US citizen, are cases in point.

Abe Dabdoub

Abe Dabdoub

Meltable and unmeltable Americans

All this goes against what US citizens are taught it means to be a US American – to have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to enjoy freedom and liberty under the law, and to exercise these rights and freedoms in the context of the American melting pot, in which individual differences melt away because all US citizens identify as US Americans.

The reality is that these rights and freedoms are only guaranteed to US citizens who are deemed to be ‘meltable Americans’ – US citizens whose presumed differences unproblematically melt away when these US citizens embrace their US American identities.  For ‘unmeltable Americans’ – US citizens (or those who aspire to US citizenship) whose differences are perceived to be undesirable or even threatening to the US state or to US society – no such guarantee functions in practice.

Unmeltable Americans expose the flaws in the keystone of the American melting pot myth – the principle of tolerance.  For tolerance is premised upon two troubling moves – the designation of someone we are thinking of tolerating as different to us and the designation of ourselves as morally superior to that different person because we reserve for ourselves the right to judge whether or not that different person deserves to be tolerated.  Tolerance, then, is not about accepting someone we think of as different to us as our moral equivalent:  it is about making a determination in a particular moment to allow that different person to be tolerated in spite of their moral inferiority to us.  What this means in practice is that tolerance can turn into intolerance whenever we feel this is morally justified, even if this judgement or feeling is based upon a person’s race, religion, national origin, sexuality, or politics.

US citizens take pride in the fact that the US is a tolerant nation.  But this pride is misplaced because tolerance and intolerance are two sides of the same coin.  Which side that coin lands on often depends upon how patriotism and fear are aligned, especially in times of national crisis.

When security trumps liberty

Practicing intolerance by qualifying the rights and freedoms of a nation’s own citizens and restricting pathways to citizenship in times of national crisis are practices that are not unique to the US.  Nor are they unique to this period in US history.  But those who would argue that treating ‘intolerably different’  US citizens as security risks is necessary to defend the post-9/11 US either forget or wilfully distort what the US experiment is supposed to be about – liberty.  As Julia Shearson reminds us, ‘Patrick Henry didn’t say “Give me security or give me death.”  He said, “Give me liberty”.’  That is not to say that the cause of liberty is not abused by the US in its domestic and foreign policy, as the Bush Administration’s neoconservative wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuation of many Bush Administration War on Terror policies by the Obama Administration evidence.  But it is to say that these abuses tend to be all the more flagrant when security trumps liberty.

So as we US citizens commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, let us embrace the bumper sticker slogan ‘We will never forget’ in its entirety.  Let us remember those who lost their lives on 9/11 and their loved ones who struggle on without them.  Let us remember the heroic first responders and ordinary people who rescued and supported those affected by the events of that day and how that day now effects them.  Let us remember the soldiers and civilians of many countries who lost their lives or their freedom as a result of US foreign policies.  But let us also spare a thought for those ‘intolerably different’ US citizens who bear the consequences of a fear-based patriotism because they live September 11 every day in the shadow of the promise of what it means to be an American. 

These unmeltable Americans remind us US citizens that we must not remember September 11, 2001 and its aftermath simply as we wish it had been, as our individual selective memories and our collective myths about citizenship, patriotism, nationalism, tolerance, justice and liberty encourage us to.  Nor must we forget it.  Instead, we must remember September 11 as fully as we can, including those things about it we would rather forget.  For it is this more complete history that is shaping who we are and who we might become as a nation and as a people.

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