It’s sometimes easy — too easy — to think, talk or write about the assault on civil liberties in the United States, and related injustices, and conceive of them as abstractions. Two weeks ago, the Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal, wrote that ever since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has created ‘what’s essentially a separate justice system for Muslims.’ That should be an extraordinary observation: creating a radically different — and more oppressive — set of rules, laws and punishments for a class of people in the United States based on their religious affiliation is a disgrace of historic proportion. Yet here we have someone occupying one of the most established media positions in the country matter-of-factly observing that this is exactly the state of affairs that exists on American soil, and it prompts little notice, let alone protest.
There are many factors accounting for the willingness to tolerate, or even approve of, this systematic persecution, most of which I’ve written about before. But one important reason I want to highlight here is that — as is true of America’s related posture of endless wars — its victims, by design, are so rarely heard from. As is true for most groups of humans who remain hidden, they are therefore easily demonized. This invisibility also means that even those who object in principle to what is being done have difficulty apprehending in a visceral way the devastation that is wreaked in the lives of these human beings who have done nothing wrong. Their absence from our discourse can confine one’s understanding of these issues to the theoretical realm, and thus limit one’s ability to truly care.
I spent the last week traveling to several cities where, without planning to do so, I met dozens of people whose lives have been seriously impeded or fully wrecked by the abuses carried out in the name of the War on Terror. This happens whenever I travel to speak at events, and it’s one of the reasons I do it. Meeting such people isn’t the reason for my travel. These meetings usually are unplanned. But the decade-long abuses carried out in the post-9/11 era are so pervasive, so systematized, that no matter what city I visit, it’s very common for me to end up meeting people — usually though not always Muslims — whose lives have been unjustly and severely harmed by these state actions.
And it’s not only the targeted individuals themselves, but entire communities of people, whose lives are substantially damaged. Being able to meet and speak with people directly affected personalizes the issues for me that are most frequently written about here, and so I want to describe several of those encounters I had just in the last week.