Robert Azzi: Reflections in pain and hope

For the Monitor
Published: 9/12/2021 7:00:15 AM

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

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, on a day bright, clear and full of hope, I embraced a young Palestinian at Boston’s Logan Airport, located his luggage and hit the road for Exeter for the start of a new school year.

We left Boston around 8:00 a.m., within minutes, perhaps, of the hijackings of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. Planes filled with terrorists.

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.

On that day we, as a people and nation, changed.

I changed.

As anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-other rhetoric roiled across America, as 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 with whom I would stand going forward: with Americans who believed only in “America, right or wrong,” or as an American committed to the values upon which this nation was created, where all peoples are created equal, even in bad times.

It was an easy choice. I stand there still.

On September 14, 2001, at a whole-school interfaith service, as two Muslim students began to recite, in Arabic and English, the Fatihah, the opening prayer in the Qur’an:

“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.”

I heard spoken, sotto voce, by a young student in the audience, “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, attacked, arrested and killed, mosques would be desecrated, hate and ignorance rage in the media and turbaned Sikhs and bearded Armenians were attacked because of the way they looked.

It was relentless and has never ended.

By September 18, 2001, our government had voted nearly unanimously to go to war, not just in Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda had sanctuary, but against all “those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda … Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”

Bush was correct. It has been a lengthy campaign and in Afghanistan alone, it lasted 7,262 days — and we lost.

We lost, in part, because too many in power falsely believed that military force could defeat radical ideologies, 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.

In part, we lost because not enough people truly believed in the fullness of America.

At one point our government held 762 people, including citizens, nationwide, for three to eight months, many in solitary confinement with regular strip searches. As reported in the Guardian, “The [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 in part what the terrorists described us as being, not on being who we needed to be in times of crisis.

This week, as we remember 9/11, lawyers at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp are debating whether to continue, after nearly 18 years of detention, the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the reputed strategist of 9/11 who’s yet to be tried for his crimes against humanity.

Today, at Guantánamo, a detention camp 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.

KSM is yet to be tried because he was tortured, because he was waterboarded 183 times, 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 KSM is, testimony elicited through torture is unacceptable.

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 Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 domestic terrorist 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 (ADL), 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 student is now an American citizen. Having graduated from Phillips Exeter (and Dartmouth with a PhD) he’s currently doing medical research and thriving, aspiring to fulfill the American Dream.

I couldn’t be more proud.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at

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