History is created every day, but some days are more historic than others. It is so hard to believe that it has been 15 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is even harder to comprehend that some students entering high school this year were born after that historic date.
Earlier this week, Smith-Cotton High School Principal Wade Norton shared this message with his staff: “In honor of 9/11, we will celebrate the first responders, the men and women who lost their lives and the troops that still fight for our freedom with a Red, White, and Blue day on 9/9/16. It has been 15 years and we now have students who were not alive during that scary Tuesday morning. Take the time to explain why you are wearing Red, White, and Blue. Tell them where you were on September 11th. We need to pass these stories on to the next generation.”
Everyone who lived through 9/11 has a different memory of that day and its aftermath, different stories that define for them one of our nation’s most troubling hours. What has stuck with me are the stories of two men who were nowhere near New York; Washington, D.C.; or Shanksville, Pa., that day. They were in Mesa, Ariz., the same city where I was living and working in 2001.
Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh and native of India, was shot to death in front of the gas station he owned in Mesa. Just 20 minutes later, according to a New York Times report, the man who killed him “shot at but missed a clerk of Lebanese descent at a Mobil station. Soon afterward, he fired several shots into the home of a family of Afghan descent, but hit no one.”
In interviews afterward, Frank Roque admitted he mistook Sodhi for a Muslim and had said his shooting rampage was an attempt at revenge for the 9/11 attacks. As the origins of the 9/11 plot came to light, I was fearful that someone blinded by hate would seek payback for the attacks, in the process killing innocent citizens. Truthfully, I was surprised it took four days for that to happen – I feared it would happen sooner.
Five years ago, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Sodhi’s brother, Rana, spoke with Aljazeera reporter Gabriel Elizondo about his efforts to build religious tolerance and awareness. Rana shared that in the days after 9/11, friends urged him to remove his turban as a safety measure. He refused.
“I said no,” Rana told Elizondo. “My family came here and we believe in this country because of freedom of religion, and my religion teaches me you don’t live your life as a coward, you live your life with pride and without fear.”
Just hours after the 9/11 attacks, East Valley Tribune editorial cartoonist Mike Ritter created a testament to the American spirit with paper and ink. His drawing, “Still Standing,” depicted a giant Uncle Sam standing where the towers had been, smoke and ash billowing around his feet. It resonated with residents throughout the Phoenix area and across the nation.
Mike, who died suddenly of a heart ailment in 2014, was fantastically talented and I am fortunate to have known and worked with him. Mike, who was gay, was the art director at GA Voice in Atlanta, a publication focused on LGBT issues. He sought to shed light on those who oppress any person, especially those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter ideal of what “American” means.
We’d like to think that tolerance and understanding have grown in the years since the terrorists took down the towers, but so long as people are advocating building walls and breaking up families through deportation we have to face the fact that we have not grown enough.
A decade ago, Rana Singh Sodhi told Elizondo: “Before 9/11 I never believed there were ignorant or racist people in our society in America. I always thought we had a very educated and well-mannered society.”
Those are goals that we can continue to work toward.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.