The Politics of Paralysis

In the last few weeks, as the national firestorm over the “Ground Zero Mosque” reached a deafening pitch, I have not been able to stop thinking about a handmade sign hanging in a gas station in Mesa, Arizona.

On September 15, 2001, a turbaned Sikh man was murdered in front of this gas station, the first of at least two dozen people murdered in hate crimes in the months after 9/11. Neighbors and strangers sent hundreds of flowers and cards and messages, but the family chose this sign to display on their store wall — as a reminder and a warning.

Nine years later, the controversy surrounding the building of a community center in Manhattan known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” has generated protests against mosques in places likes California and Tennessee — and a new outbreak of hate incidents around the country.  Last week, a NYC Muslim cab driver was stabbed and mosques near my hometown in California were threatened (a pig’s head with the sign “No mosque in NYC”; another sign read “No temple for the god of terrorism at Ground Zero”).  The Muslim and Sikh communities are once again frantically circulating internal emails and worrying about safety.

We have been here before.  After years spent documenting and combating hate crimes after 9/11 through my film and advocacy campaign, I am not surprised that “Muslim” has become synonymous with “terrorist” in our collective psychology. I am deeply troubled that it has become normalized to the point that mainstream commentators — even Howard Dean and the Anti-Defamation League — have come out against the community center instead of working to protect the rights of all Americans.  The media has helped polarize the issue without inviting recognition of what’s at stake on both sides, and while many of us feel angry and frustrated about what’s happening, we’ve been quiet.

The politics of paralysis works like this: when hateful voices fill the airwaves, good people become overwhelmed by the task of responding.  We close our eyes and will it to disappear, trusting that clearer heads will prevail.  But our paralysis allows those voices to grow louder, more insidious, until violence follows — just as it did after 9/11.

Want to help change that?

I’m convening a working group of friends and colleagues who want to spark a renewed call to action focused on young people.  We are looking to build a campaign that takes a stand without demonizing others, and which invites recognition of common ground. Interested?  Stay tuned.