“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
I was 16 starting my junior year at a Quaker Christian high school when 9/11 happened. I remember the rush of patriotism and nationalism that swept over me—it was amazing. We had been attacked and I wasn’t about to idly sit by and let the terrorists win. I immediately signed up to donate blood and started making hundreds of red, white, and blue ribbon pins to pass out at school. I gave a speech at our annual speech meet on the dangers of Islam and how they hated us and wanted to kill us. I argued passionately for the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq; debating my more pacifist Christian friends.
War, I found, was easy to support.
And I wasn’t alone. Polls at the time showed that 8 out of 10 Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan and, later, 72 percent the invasion of Iraq. The country was riding a swell of nationalism and patriotic feelings. It wasn’t about the buildings—it was about us, our Identity. September 11th 2001 was personal.
My brother was only 17 when he enlisted in the Army. Like many young Americans, 9/11 was a huge catalyst, an appealing call to kick some terrorist ass. I graduated high school and the wars continued. But my brother wasn’t there—he was in Iraq serving his first of two tours. The wars had expanded and we now had an entire “Axis of Evil” as our enemy. I entered college and the list of countries only grew.
I am now 32 years old and my country is still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. We toppled the dictator Gaddafi in Libya and are fighting several proxy wars in Africa and the middle East. Our newly elected President Donald Trump (never thought I’d be saying those words) recently launched an attack on the Syrian government because “no child of God should ever suffer such horror” (referring to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons).
Like the rest of my generation, I’ve grown up with a front row seat to Act I of what we now call the “Refugee Crisis.” From the initial invasion into Afghanistan to the expansion into Iraq, Libya, and Syria, older millennials came of age while witnessing the actions and decisions that have resulted in the tens of millions of people fleeing for their lives. Over half of them children.
The wars were easy to support. Their ramifications? Not so much.
A decade and a half later, approximately half of Americans are supporting President Trump’s “travel ban” blocking entry from six Muslim-majority nations. About 40 percent of us don’t want the U.S. accepting any Syrian refugees: “That’s right, we need a TRAVEL BAN for certain DANGEROUS countries,” Trump recently tweeted. “Not some politically correct term that won’t help us protect our people!”
“Dangerous countries.” “Our people.” Americans are once again being motivated by fear, identity, and seeming self-interest. The wars were meant to protect us. The ban is meant to protect us. Forget that the millions of men, women, and children fleeing violence are doing so as a direct result of the wars we all so fervently supported. Wars I thought would be over by now.
Sandpoint, Idaho, is a small resort town 30 minutes north of where I grew up. Last year, the town’s residents blocked the relocating of Syrian refugees amidst concerns of multiculturalism and “darkening.” Most, however, were simply scared of being victims of a terrorism. So they turned their backs on actual victims of terrorism.
Coming of age during 9/11 taught me much about identity, fear, and empathy. I went from teenage war hawk to a vocal advocate for refugees. Witnessing the progression of the wars and coinciding rise in islamophobia has made me realize that fear can turn people one of two ways: Either it can make us cower and shrink, turning into ourselves while turning our backs on others; or it can help us face our fears—embracing and empathizing with those who are different than us and finding strength and courage in doing so.
Because at the end of the day, as Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Jessica Schreindl is a community organizer and freelance writer in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Mic.com and has been published on Feministing.com. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking.