“9/11 Happened to Us All”

What would happen if we felt empathy for those who we believe hold hateful views?  Would we lose some integral part of our identity or find common humanity?

On every 9/11 anniversary, I find myself showing my film or giving a talk, but this year, in the spirit of the Common Ground Campaign, I spent the day listening instead of speaking.  And what I found surprised me.

During the memorial at Ground Zero, as families gathered to remember and grieve, one man who lost his wife told the New York Times: “A mosque is built on the site of a winning battle… They are symbols of conquest. Hence we have a symbol of conquest here? I don’t think so.”

I would cringe at these words in the past, firing back an argument from my stock of ammunition. This time, however, I did not wince. Social science research shows that the stress we feel during an argument often blocks our ability to feel empathy — the emotional response that flows from inhabiting the viewpoint or experience of another person.

After spending hours absorbing the raw grief of people who lost sons and brothers and husbands, I listened calmly and could feel empathy for a man concerned that his wife’s killers are marking their conquest in Park51.

Empathy can happen spontaneously, without work, flowing like a spring, when we lay our armor down. Empathy helped show me what is at stake for him: desecration of his wife’s memory.  And that understanding allows me to form a response that directly engages the fear and misinformation that fuel his belief — rather than call him a bigot or racist.

I can tell him the story of Balbir Singh Sodhi,  a Sikh man my family knew.  He was the first person murdered in a hate crime after 9/11.  For many months, a cross marked the spot where he fell.  A Christian cross. Muslims share as little association with the terrorists as Christians with Sodhi’s killer or the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh or the now infamous Gainesville pastor who threatened to burn the Qur’an.  Opposition to Park51 conflates Islam with the handful of people who hijacked the religion to commit violence in its name.  It fuels the rise in anti-Muslim hate speech and violence, and causes Muslim, Arab, and Sikh Americans like me to wonder whether we will ever be seen as American.

Some say that empathy has limits.  It led to the failure in leadership by Howard Dean, the Anti-Defamation League, and so many other mainstream voices who chose to abandon the defense of Muslim Americans to avoid hurt feelings. In this view, sometimes its better not to ask “what is at stake” for those on the other side.

But empathy does not have to compromise our moral compass.  It is possible to become  vulnerable to others’ stories and allow them to transform us, without erasing our most cherished values.  In order to do that, we need more storytelling and less screaming.  Check out CAIR’s PSA Campaign “9/11 Happened to Us All.”  It has the power to inspire empathy in millions of viewers, more than any amount of debate in the media or protests in the streets.  It makes me believe that we can harness empathy to help create common ground for us all.