This Leonard Pitts Jr. Column was originally published on Sept. 13, 2001.
Episodes from the aftermath of tragedy:
In Colorado Springs, Colo., four men threaten to burn down a mosque.
In Irving, Texas, someone fires shots into the Islamic Center.
In Chicago, a passerby threatens violence against an Arab man.
The sad and awful truth is, you knew this was coming. Could have predicted it the moment four stolen planes plowed into a nation's heart. This is, after all, a troubling strain of our national personality that rises reliably to the surface in moments like this.
During the First World War, Americans of German heritage were widely treated as traitors and spies. During the Second World War, Americans of Japanese heritage were rounded up by the government and interned. During the Iranian hostage crisis, Americans of Middle Eastern heritage were reviled amid loose talk of mass deportation. And Tuesday afternoon, a friend of mine - though in that moment, I was embarrassed to call him that - said we should search out everyone in this country from the Middle East and send them back home.
In the wake of sentiments like those and against the backdrop of our history, let me say just one thing to my sister and brother Americans.
Don't. Please, don't.
Do not give terrorists the victory a hundred Pentagons and a thousand World Trade Centers could not. Hatred on account of culture or religion is unworthy of us at any time. But in the wake of Tuesday's events, it's tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a group of petty thugs who tried to bring us down to their level, make us just like them.
I'm reminded of something I heard a man say on the radio Wednesday morning: that it's important that we save Americans, but also important that we save America.
As we grapple with the unthinkable, it occurs to me that his observation, which came and went in the media maelstrom of experts and pundits, encapsulates much of what is ultimately at stake here. Meaning human lives, yes. But also, that which ennobles them.
As these words are written, brave and sweat-streaked women and men sift the rubble of iconic office buildings in Manhattan and greater Washington and a crash site in the Pennsylvania countryside. The work of saving Americans continues apace.
But the work of saving America is a trickier, knottier task whose results are less readily seen. Because it is the work of saving an ideal and an identity, preserving - and uplifting - the best of who we are. Meaning, an experiment in individual liberty, a research project in human tolerance, a people bound to one another not by blood but by fealty to a extraordinary ideal.
And if you don't understand that ideal, well . . . you could pore over the Constitution, you could read the thoughts of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King. Or, you could simply recall the five words at the end of the pledge we once said as children. "Liberty. And justice. For all."
In this moment when emotions are high, it seems prudent — vital — that we stop and remind ourselves of what is meant by "all."
Every one of us, no one left out. We are not a nation that is only white or only Christian. We're a people of rainbow hues and multiple faiths.
If that heritage has taught us nothing else by now, it should have taught us this: It's ignorant to think you can judge a man's soul by looking at his face. Yes, I saw Arabs cheering our pain in the West Bank. I also saw them issuing condemnations in Washington.
Take it as a reminder: The enemy is not Arab people or the Muslim religion. The enemy is fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, hate. The madmen who commandeered those planes don't represent the followers of Islam any more than the madmen who blow up abortion clinics represent the followers of Christ.
Yes, we're angry. We're supposed to be angry. We have a right to be angry. But at the same time, we must be wary of the places to which we allow that anger to bring us.
If we let it deliver us to the doorstep of fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, hate, we might as well give up now. Because everything that matters has already been lost.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.