One of my friends once said he thought it would be easy to commit an act of terror.
“Why do you have to blow up a plane,” he asked. “You could walk right into Grand Central Station, and there are hundreds and hundreds of people there.”
That one thought planted a seed of fear in my mind, a seed that wouldn’t blossom for many years.
I was 6 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. I didn’t lose anyone or know anyone who lived in New York City. I knew that many people had died, but I didn’t understand why it was such a huge deal. People die all the time.
Besides the twinge of fear I initially experienced whenever planes flew by — a feeling that eventually faded away — I didn’t think that I was in immediate danger in my town, three hours north of the two buildings I would watch for weeks crumble in a cloud of black smoke and fire. I had no idea how serious the situation was.
Now that I am older, I can see that the events of 9/11 have created a national feeling of fear. Sometimes it’s invisible. Other times it is wrapped around you like a thin sweater you can forget you have on.
For example, a bus station environment used to be simply crowds of people hurrying to their destination, waiting in huge lines or passing time by reading books and listening to music.
Now, loudspeakers warn travelers to report any suspicious activity or unattended packages, which brings to my mind news reports of buses getting blown up in other countries.
Sometimes, if I see a woman in traditional Arab Muslim dress, I can’t help but look at her from the corner of my eye. Occasionally, I imagine a bomb going off, smoke and fire, and people panicking and trying to get out of the building. It’s hard not to think, “what if.”
I know that I am not the only one who automatically judges people on first glance. I have heard other kids talk about it and make jokes. When people see a woman wearing long, flowing clothing, they automatically assume she is Muslim. When a Muslim woman is seen praying on a plane, she must be doing it because she is about to set off a bomb.
I often catch myself looking at a Muslim in this way, and I immediately feel guilty. I know being a Muslim doesn’t make you a terrorist. I also know that it’s not Muslims as a whole whom we are fighting a war against, but extremist radicals. But no matter how informed I am, these thoughts still cross my mind.
I sometimes hate myself for equating innocent people with a man like Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for thousands of deaths, a man whose death this year caused people to parade in the streets.
Even though 9/11 was an attack on the U.S., Americans were not the only people killed or affected. There were Muslims in the towers, too, and there must have been Muslims other than the terrorists on the planes.
When I see a Muslim, I may be nervous, but I can’t imagine how it must feel to be that woman in the hijab. Walking down the street in New York City, she might be more afraid of the lingering stares from people that pass by than I am of her.
Why shouldn’t a Muslim woman sit on a bus, a train or a plane with her children without a feeling she is being watched?
The boarding school that I go to has students from all over the world. This has allowed me to meet and become friends with people I used to think would be different from me.
Being able to become close to people from different backgrounds has made me realize that teenagers are just teenagers. Despite whatever cultural differences we may have, we can easily relate to each other and find common interests.
When I hang out with friends, I don’t care what religion they are. If I found out that all of my best friends were Arab Muslims I wouldn’t care because I would know them as people. I would never equate them with danger.
Had I known more Muslims growing up, or learned about Islam, I probably wouldn’t be nervous when I see a Muslim on a bus. Maybe if I had had a chance to learn about their culture and traditions, my hesitation would turn into interest.
It’s easy to say there is nothing we can do immediately to end American prejudice toward Muslims because so many people think it is natural and that the tragedy makes it excusable. It’s easy to think the only cure for this is time, and hope that as 9/11 fades into history, we won’t judge Muslims so harshly.
But changing the ways of a country starts with changing the ways of an individual. The next time you walk past an Arab Muslim and prejudice pops into your head, don’t just dismiss it. Allow yourself to feel guilty. Try to imagine how you would feel if someone imagined you blowing up a building. Recognize that the fear is not rational. It may eventually fade away.
What’s under the hijab of a Muslim? If I strike up a conversation, I might discover that she’s a snowboarder, a Harry Potter fan or a person who loves nature photography, country music and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just like me. Underneath that hijab is a mother, a sister, a daughter, or if I step outside of my own comfort zone, a friend.