Being pre-condemned on superficial evidence as an enemy of the American people didn't begin on September 11. It's a throwback to the Red Scare of the Fifties.
Shortly after 9/11, an invitation circulated on the internet inviting American women to don hijab -- head veils -- for one day in solidarity with American Muslim women, who were being assaulted in the streets by aggressors seeking mindless vengeance for the Al Quaeda terrorist attacks. This gesture brought to my mind the valor of the Danes who donned the hated yellow star in solidarity with Jews during the Holocaust.
It was only after a spate of angry responses from friends that I rethought my initial impulse, a decision which still haunts me. I had to ask myself: What was the source of this strong passion to reach out in compassion to the "other" -- who should be my enemy? Why did it feel so important to make a clear, careful distinction between the fact that while "some" Muslims might be evil, this did not incriminate all the rest? Why was I so intent on creating common ground with people who were rapidly becoming "the other" -- the enemy -- in the eyes so many other people?
I think it's because, as a child, I walked a short way in their shoes.
"Let me listen one last time," my father said, his one real brown eye pleading with my mother's pale blue ones.
"Too dangerous," she snapped. "Walls have ears. If the neighbors -- "
"Rose and Bill have heard the Russian Army Chorus hundreds of times."
She clicked her teeth closed.
I stood drawn taut between them. What did she mean about walls and ears? What was bad about the men with red voices? We loved those songs.
While Daddy stacked the fat black records on the player, I studied the picture on the album: rows of red men standing tall in funny red caps and coats. A big red five-pointed star at the top. Everything red, as if seen through the red cellophane from my lollipops.
My father pushed a lever and the big men's red voices crowded into our small living room, singing urgent, incomprehensible words that marched together in perfect rows and built strong walls of sound. I marched along, stiff-legged and long-armed.
"Turn that down," my mother commanded. When my father didn't move, she rushed for the volume control. Daddy grabbed her wrist.
"Just one more time," he insisted. A muscle big as a gum-ball popped out on his jaw.
"George, don't do this to us," she flashed back.
Do what? She pushed him aside, skidded the needle across the record, and snatched up all four discs.
"Now," she said. "Do it now. Do you want to end up like your colleague Herb -- no job? No income? No nothing? Just for owning books by Karl Marx?"
She grabbed the album and thrust it at my father. Still holding the records, she snatched up matches and newspapers, and strode toward the back door.
"Don't procrastinate," she said, and slammed out the door.
We followed slowly, my heart thudding faster than our footsteps.
We caught up with my mother at the large wire bin where we burned rubbish. She crumpled the newspapers into tight balls, stuffed them into the bin, then struck a match. The paper bloomed quickly into flames.
"Give me the album."
My father couldn't move.
"Let's make this very simple," she snapped, bringing her face close to his. "If you're found to own records of the Russian Army Chorus while Senator Joseph McCarthy is conducting his vile witch hunt, you could lose your very sensitive federal security clearance. Like Herb, you'll no longer be able to work for the U.S. Government as a research physicist. You'll lose your income."
My father turned sharply as if she'd punched him.
"It will not help that you are a Jew -- a kike. Remember how that kept you from getting a better job in private industry?" Little drops of spit flew onto my father's face. He took a step back.
"And if you lose this job, you won't find another one anywhere, because you'll be branded a Communist or Fellow Traveler. Nor will I be able to find a job because I am your wife. We will depend on friends and family for food and clothing. As for shelter, we're also housed by Uncle Sam in a government project. So where will we live? You and I -- and Ellen?"
My father turned to me with misery in his good eye. His glass eye, as always, stared nowhere at nothing -- even though I always hoped so hard it would see me.
My mother's voice got even sharper as she came close to tears. "And nobody will give a good goddamn that you even gave your eye to the Army, developing one of their lousy guns to help win the war. And for what? So we can have the so-called freedom that allows that fascist creep to persecute innocent people?"
My father took a shaky breath.
"I cannot believe we're being forced into this behavior," he whispered, all white around his lips. "Here. In the United States. I don't care what those bastards think." He ran both hands over his forehead, drawing it tight as if he were squeezing something inside his head. "But you're right: I have to care."
He pushed the album cover into my mother's hands. Then he picked up a record and struck it half-heartedly against the wire bin. It broke into four pieces. Tears rose into his one brown eye.
"My parents brought these records with them from Kiev. They gave them to me just before they died," he choked. Tears pricked into my eyes, too.
My mother bent over and picked up the four pieces.
"Too big," she said. "You can still read the label. " She crashed them into smaller pieces and picked up two more records, quickly shattering them into jagged shards. The grooves caught the sunlight in faint rainbows. Those deep red voices were in there somewhere, but we'd never hear them again.
Terrible sounds ripped out of my father. Tears ran down his right cheek. I cried silently with a terror I'd never felt before as he smashed the last record.
My mother tore the album apart and tossed the pieces into flames shaped like dragon tongues. As the cardboard caught, bright flames climbed the air. Now she tossed the biggest chunks of record onto the fire. The black shards warped as flames curled evenly around the sides, licking the red and gold labels. Then the shards slowly softened, puddling into tarry black. Thick, smelly smoke spiraled up as we tossed the last jags of black into the blaze.
The three of us tried to go back into our small, white clapboard rowhouse. But we couldn't turn away -- almost as if we hoped the voices would sing to us one more time out of the flames. We stood there, utterly silent, until the flames burned down into foul, smoking ash.
My parents were able to dispose of supposedly damning evidence rather easily, though not without pain that seared us all, burning invisible scars into my consciousness, making me hyper-vigilant not only for myself, but for other people caught up in any type of ipso facto socio-political segregation or racial profiling. It could be African-American teenagers unfairly banished from convenience stores, or my beautiful, young colleague, Julianne, whose cloud of black hair, mocha-latte skin, and tip-tilted eyes were viewed malevolently when she boarded a plane on September 18, 2001 -- when she overheard passengers, never realizing she is half-Korean, not Arab, complain about her presence to flight attendants.
I can't help wondering what's happening today to Muslim families who get caught up in Americans' terror of Islamic jihad who can't -- or don't -- or simply will not-- shed their "incriminating" distinguishing ethnic, religious, or nationalistic features? What of them? What of the Muslim women who continue to dress modestly in hijab, or Sikh men who won't abandon their turbans? What of the Pakistanis who are fleeing to Canada because America is too dangerous for them to live here anymore? What of them? What does it do to them and their children to be pre-judged because of their religion, their religious garb, or the tilt of their eyes?
What of them? What does it do to them to be pre-judged because of their religion, their religious garb, or the tilt of their eyes?
More important, what does it do to us?