Reflecting on 9/11 and its Legacies

September 11, 2019

Here’s what you need to know

On the 18th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we honor the nearly 3,000 individuals who lost their lives in the attacks, as well as those first responders who risked their well-being and, in many cases, their lives to save others and mitigate the damage. Last year, we looked back at the history of government policies and practices after 9/11. This year, we’ll look back on our efforts to combat those reactionary policies and practices. In the 18 years since, we have worked alongside other policy and public advocacy organizations to combat the media representation of terrorist violence, and have also worked to counter government surveillance policies. We’re looking back on what has worked and what needs to improve moving forward. 

Here are the details

In the wake of 9/11, Americans struggled together to overcome the tragedy and loss. Some built unity on the basis of their shared experiences. Unfortunately, for others, 9/11 brought out base-level fears and biases. Media representation and government policy were affected in negative ways. American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, experienced the brunt of the damage.

Most news articles about Muslims and Islam in the post-9/11 era were negative and usually related to either war or terrorism. Biased public opinion and increased violence followed. Initiatives by American Muslims like the rebuilding of the Pentagon crash site as an interfaith chapel were largely overlooked. Film and television depicted Muslims and Islam as prone to violence, and in response, policy and advocacy organizations held firm that no community or religion is prone to such violence. One of our primary responsibilities is to change perceptions and provide accurate portrayals of Muslims in film and media. Through the work of our Hollywood Bureau, filmmakers and media organizations have became a solution to anti-Muslim bigotry, rather than a source of the problem. Working alongside the Hollywood Bureau, our policy team has worked to counter policies which would incorporate or worsen anti-Muslim prejudice. As a result of this work, public opinion on American Muslims has begun to improve

Government surveillance policies are another lasting holdover from 9/11. In the name of national security, the federal government significantly expanded surveillance operations. In the time since, public advocacy organizations have achieved a handful of legislative victories for civil liberties. In fact, just last month a federal judge ruled in favor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) with his decision that a government terror watch list was unconstitutional

Despite these victories, surveillance operations have expanded. Government surveillance still operates unchecked, with little oversight or transparency. It securitizes American Muslims, and helps the FBI conduct sting operations on otherwise innocent American Muslims. Our strategy must change. Addressing government surveillance can no longer be merely a human rights issue adopted by vulnerable communities. Surveillance operations now exist well outside of the national security apparatus. They manage workplaces, observe our online interactions, increase stress and alienation, and lower job satisfaction

The recent spate of domestic terrorist attacks threatens the most vulnerable among us and have rightfully commanded national attention. After 9/11, the government treated terrorism as unique to Muslims and Islam — as a pathogen to be exorcised. The previous policy responses to terrorism failed communities. Our policy responses to white supremacist terrorism must heed the lessons of the past. Our white paper, “The White Supremacist Threat to America,” identifies concerns relating to organized white supremacy and offers policy recommendations for dealing with it in practice. 

The heartbreak of 9/11 is impossible to quantify. It has presented a series of challenges which all Americans navigate year in and year out. One thing we can do for those who lost their lives on 9/11, and who continue to be threatened by its legacies, is to continue to improve as an organization addressing these issues. 



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