Osama bin Laden’s face is all over the television. People are flooding the streets waving American flags. The President speaks of our unity and resolve as a nation. And 9/11 is on everyone’s mind. This has all happened before.
Except this time, ten years after 9/11, we are not grieving death; we are celebrating death. We have slain Osama bin Laden – the one who first slayed us. And we are singing and laughing and high-fiving. As if this is the end. As if violence can end a cycle of retaliation. As if retribution can bring the dead back. As if the troops are coming home tomorrow.
Even if I wanted to celebrate, I’m too busy worrying. Today, many Sikh, Muslim, and Arab American families, brace for violence, concerned that Americans will target those who “look like” the Osama bin Laden we just destroyed. We didn’t bring Osama bin Laden to trial, after all. We killed him before we captured his body. So why would vigilante Americans wait for the law to take care of the “terrorists” in their midst?
The last time a sudden burst of nationalism rallied us against America’s turbaned and bearded enemy, an epidemic of hate crimes swept the country. In the yearlong aftermath of 9/11, the FBI reported a 1700 percent increase in anti-Muslim violence. At least 19 people were killed in hate murders. In the last decade, we have seen resurgences of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last election season confirmed to politicians that they can use anti-Muslim sentiment to win political points.
In the last few months alone, Congressman Peter King held controversial congressional hearings investigating “radicalization” in the Muslim community, Tea Party protesters yelled “Terrorist!” and “Remember 9/11″ at Muslim families at a fundraiser, legislators proposed a flurry of bills banning sharia in more than a dozen states, and Arizona tried to pass a bill that would remove the name of a victim of post-9/11 hate murders from its 9/11 memorial. It was only a matter of time before we heard news of violence. Just a few days before the congressional hearings, two turbaned Sikhs were gunned down in likely hate crimes in Elk Grove, CA. Another was murdered in Las Vegas.
Today, the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing does not bring an end to the hate; it refuels it. In a decade-long “war” against terror, each time our government decides that some people are so bad that they must be placed outside the reach of law, our national imagination shrinks. Human beings, in their fullness and complexity, become one-dimensional enemies. It’s hard to kill people; it’s easy to kill enemies. Frightened by Islamic fanaticism, we turned Osama bin Laden from a frail sick human being into a mythic super-criminal who embodied pure evil. So, no wonder people are celebrating his destruction.
We would never celebrate the murder of a person. But thousands are pouring into the streets to rejoice in the death of evil incarnate. And those who “look like” him — especially Sikh men and boys with turbans and beards who have endured a decade of “hey bin Laden!” on our city streets — are waiting and hoping that Americans might change how they see.
Update: Breaking News — 5/2/11 at 1PM PST
A Portland mosque was vandalized just hours after President Obama announced that the U.S. had killed bin Laden. The graffiti reads: OSAMA TODAY, ISLAM TOMORROW.