The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks over the weekend provided a momentary reminder of an America that seems very distant.
It was an opportunity to recall a time when our nation was united by a concern about its vulnerability, yet also a collective resolve to seek justice for the victims, to rebuild what the hijackers destroyed, and to celebrate the values that made them attack us.
But then an incident at Washington University in St. Louis dragged us back into the divisive present.
A student at the school, Fadel Alkilani, removed 2,977 small U.S. flags the campus College Republicans had planted in memory of each victim of the 9/11 attacks.
A video of Alkilani showed him yanking the flags from the ground on Saturday morning and putting them in large garbage bags.
On a day that America recalled the deadliest attack on its soil, executed by 19 fundamentalist Muslim fanatics, Alkilani called the flags a “political prop,” and removing them was a way to protest Islamaphobia, according to a statement he released that was reported by the campus newspaper.
“Since 9/11, Islamophobic hate crimes have been higher than they ever were before. The United States invaded countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, and over 900,000 people have been killed because of the wars the United States has propagated. 37 million people have been displaced, with some reports stating that number reaches up to 59 million. Any memorial of 9/11 that does not contend with these facts is not only incomplete, but it also amplifies pro-imperialist sentiment and actively disrespects those who have died because of the American Invasion,” Alkilani said in the statement.
“A memorial which uses US flags is especially insidious, as it does not recognize those who have fallen, but uses a symbol that was on the shoulders of those who are responsible for the deaths of 900,000 people, and uses the innocent lives lost during 9/11 as a political prop upholding American hegemony,” he continued.
“Muslims such as I have faced fear, harassment, and Islamophobia from those who unjustly use the victims of 9/11 as a political cudgel. Those who died during 9/11 deserve better than to be used as a political tool by those who seek to excuse American imperialism and Islamophobia,” Alkilani added.
“They died for no reason, suddenly and traumatically, and they should be grieved, not by political symbols, but by their names and faces. I also want to extend my condolences to all those who have died and been injured, both American and not, since 9/11. Their deaths were preventable, and thus, extremely tragic.”
The school newspaper reported that university administrators were “disappointed,” but noted they had not determined if he would be punished.
Speaking for the university, which distanced itself from Alkilani’s protest, Vice-Chancellor Julie Flory said, “We were disappointed to learn about the disruption to the 9/11 display on Mudd Field. We condemn the interference with the expression of support by the College Republicans for the victims of the national tragedy that took place 20 years ago today.”
“We value freedom of expression in all forms and will work to ensure that all students are able to express their points of view through appropriate channels without disrupting the rights of others to show support for causes they care about. This is a critical component of our core values and we are committed to facilitating free speech on our campus,” her statement added.
Nick Rodriguez, president of the College Republicans, told the campus paper that at a minimum Alkilani, who is treasurer of the student union and a resident adviser, should be removed from both posts because he had “made a mockery of one of the most somber days in American history.”
“What does it say to be a top American institution and have yourself represented by a student leader who has no respect for property, campus traditions or the remembrance of thousands of lost lives,” Rodriguez said. “Today is about remembering the tragedy, 20 years ago to the day, not to make a political statement. Any reason he can conjure to remove the flags I find ludicrous.”
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