Right after 9/11, while New York and Washington were still smoldering, a rider attacked the driver of an interstate bus, sending it into a crash. It was the kind of freak, thousand-miles away outburst that today might merit two or three inches at the bottom of a newspaper page.
At that moment in time, the attack briefly flared as a national headline, as we feared it was part of a wave of Al Qaida terror attacks widely expected to follow 9/11. It fit into a feeling of shock and fear and vulnerability seizing the entire country, easily reaching Portland, 3,000 miles from the attacks.
Last week’s coordinated assaults in Paris, wanton slaughter seemingly unstoppable in a closely watched Western city, brought back a shudder of that time. Again, an open society was attacked by shadowy murderers, bringing not only widespread death but the looming threat of what might follow.
We can recall, if not quite recapture, the freezing fear of fall 2001. The state of Oregon ran a hurry-up effort, and repeated briefings, on defenses against biological warfare. Seven local Muslims were arrested and convicted for conspiring to join the Taliban in Afghanistan, although the seven involved may have been more of a danger to themselves than to Operation Enduring Freedom.
The expected horrors never materialized. Ending the Al Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan, killing a large number of their leaders over time, strengthening our intelligence capacity and some amount of luck – a highly inept underwear bomber on an airplane, a car in Times Square noticed in time – eased the domestic threat, and the prickly sense of impending peril. A recent Pew poll found that voters under 30 – for whom 9/11 is more history than memory – were less concerned about terrorist attacks in America and less likely to pay attention to overseas attacks than voters over 30, who need only close their eyes to see planes flying into towers.
Now, that could change. If it could happen to Paris, it could happen to Portland. “I think this incident in Paris,“ Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told The New York Times, “will break down some of the false sense of separation from the experience the rest of the world is having with terrorism.”
Reality is a useful awareness, but so is remembering who you are. Already, the political debate is frothing with demands to reject all Middle Eastern immigrants – or to apply, for maybe the first time ever, a religious qualification for admission – and for some politicians, a crackdown on all immigrants. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president – words that still look bizarre in print – mused Monday about the government closing down some mosques, although he assured listeners he would hate to do it.47
In Portland and in Oregon, among the most open places in the world’s most open society, this all rings especially strident. Following 9/11, when the attack was much bigger and much nearer – in one writer’s phrase, extremely loud and incredibly close – Portland still resisted some of the U.S. government’s flailings, such as refusing to cooperate with a program of interrogation and detention of recent immigrants that the feds admitted, years later, had produced nothing of use.
One reason the United States seems to have a better connection to its Muslim population than many European countries – at least calculated in metrics such as numbers seeking to run to Syria to join ISIS – is a greater U.S. effort in accepting Muslims as part of the larger society, of treating them as though they were actually citizens. The effort has been imperfectly successful, and it neither makes all Muslims feel accepted nor guarantees against all terrorist attacks, but it’s been an attitude and an advantage not to be casually abandoned.
Monday, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, three decades posthumously, to Minoru Yasui, a Hood River native and University of Oregon graduate who challenged World War II Japanese internment all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. It was one more reminder that the impulses felt right after an attack, and in the fear of more, are not always trustworthy.
Nobody knows where our current crisis goes, and you can imagine situations that would put crushing pressure on our tolerance and our due process. But we’ve been here before, and it now looks like Portland was wrong after 1941 and closer to right after 2001.
We were just reminded again that our enemies are vicious and evil.
But our real challenge is still to be true to ourselves.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/18/15.