By DANIEL HERATY
DEARBORN – When the country fell victim to terrorist attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, many communities across the country felt the immediate impact in different ways.
In Dearborn, those who remembered the attacks recalled the event and where the city is 10 years later.
Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad, who was a member of the Detroit Police Department when the attacks occurred, said the Department’s job in the immediate aftermath was to keep the communities calm. He said many of the Chaldean merchants in Detroit were being harassed and targeted because people were trying to put a face on the enemy.
“They were erroneously targeted as part of the terrorist group,” Haddad said. “They were getting bomb threats at their business places, they got wires cut, they got their cars messed up, their phones (lines) were being jammed. They were really nervous about the state of affairs.”
He said that in Dearborn, the feeling of fear has worsened since the attacks, but he credits the residents for their reactions in the years that have passed.
“In certain ways, the citizens of Dearborn, whether they’re Arabic or not, have been unduly targeted and taxed, and I think that’s unfortunate,” he said. “But much to their credit, they’ve stood so tall, and I hear that all over the country.”
He said that residents need to be aware, and having a business continuity plan is important so a sense of normalcy can continue in the event of another attack.
“We have to be careful, we have to remain vigilant,” he said. “I think one of the most critical things public safety officials have to do is have good mitigation plan if (the terrorists) get luckier than us on any given day.”
Haddad said major crises, no matter when or how they happen, always invariably reflect well on Dearborn.
“The deep history of this city comes through every time one of these crises hit here,” he said. “They come and go, and the city’s made to look better and stronger and more united. And the people act accordingly.”
Mayor John O’Reilly Jr., who was City Council president at the time, said the city had a lower profile before the attacks. He said all those associated with the city have been thrust into the spotlight and become a flashpoint for anti-Muslim feelings.
O’Reilly said the community at the time was more divided and more focused on individual differences than similarities.
“What 9/11 did was show that somehow people would choose to come to Dearborn and see the enemy,” he said. “There was so much uncertainty. It was a tragedy that we had not experienced before.”
After 9/11, he said there was palpable sense of fear in the community.
“We could not get our minds around what happened,” he said. “Should we anticipate it happening again? Who might want to hurt me? That was one of those things that might be a major impetus including people in this community.”
Since the attacks, he said members of the television media who were doing stories on the Middle East came to Dearborn and tried to link the two subjects together.
“Locally, we were aware there there was a high threshold of the impact (of the attacks),” he said. “All of a sudden, we have become a focal point for discussions involving Arab Americans. Before that, there were issues we knew as a community, and we were trying to work through the misunderstandings, the cultural changes.”
He said those without an understanding of the city started to see the fear and the problems some people had with Muslims, which caused some residents to take a defensive stance.
“At the end of the day, the community had a much sharper sense of a shared experience and a sense of being part of the same endeavor,” O’Reilly said.
In the 10 years since the attacks, the outlook for tolerance is better, O’Reilly said, offering a word of caution against those who would try to use the city to enhance a predetermined motive.
“We still have to be wary of people who don’t have anything directly against Dearborn, but they have agendas,” he said. “It’s not anything within our community or our area, it’s people that are further away. We, left to our own devices, will be fine.”
Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services Executive Director Hassan Jaber said he is proud of the resolve that Dearborn has shown in the face of such adversity.
“Dearborn has dealt with this tragedy in a wise way and that sense continues to grow,” he said. “I think Dearborn is showing its nature of being receptive and enjoying its diversity and, frankly, celebrating its diversity.”
Council on American Islamic Relations Executive Director Dawud Walid said the attacks caused many more Muslim congregations to become more involved in their community with events including open houses.
He said, “9/11 was a major tragedy for us all. However, it caused the community to come out of its shell more and not just get involved in community service projects.”
Walid said there has been a steady increase in Islamophobia since the attacks. He said recent cases, including the January 2011 plot by California native Roger Stockham to attack the Islamic Center of America with a pickup truck full of high-end fireworks, and the protests against Sharia Law, the Islamic code of conduct, staged by the Rev. Terry Jones and his followers, have been an offshoot of the fear that has permeated society since Sept. 11.
“The increase has been steady the last 10 years,” he said. “A lot of what’s been going on is a cumulative effect from constant portrayal in a negative light by certain media outlets and anti-minority campaigns.” American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Regional Director Imad Hamad said that before the attacks, the group was already concerned about racial profiling in their community.
On a flight Hamad took from Detroit to Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, he said he experienced the chaos and suspicion that followed the attacks first-hand.
“The captain (of the plane) announced that due to a traffic jam, the flight would be diverted to Dulles International Airport (in Washington D.C),” he said. “Finally we arrived at Dulles, where we found out at the airport that the nation was under a terrorist attack. All of a sudden everyone started looking at me and I was just as shocked as they were.”
He eventually got back to Detroit after taking a flight through Baltimore. On the flight, he said he met a woman who asked him if he would switch seats with her so he would be near the window. He agreed, and the two began a conversation that lasted the duration of the plane ride. Once the plane landed in Detroit, she reached out to him in a manner that still affects him today.
“She … made sure to hug me in front of everyone,” he said. “This taught me two things. One, when we talk to each other without assumptions and without rendering a guilty-by-association verdict, we are all the same and all against a common evil. She also reminded me how easily I could have been a victim. I also realized how easily I could have been accused.”
He said the aftermath of the attacks led to a feeling of suspicion that became “the norm.”
“As we moved on, there was the unprecedented challenge to adjust to one set of answers that came our way,” he said. “By no choice of ours, we were thrown on the hot seat and were asked to respond to questions that even today, no one has been able to satisfactorily answer.”
In spite of the hostile atmosphere, Hamad said, Muslims have seen their resolve strengthened.
“Despite the pressure that we dealt with, and the pain and agony, and we all remember the victims and salute them, the tragedy helped shape us,” he said. “It strengthened our bond, and no one will be able to take that away from us.”
(Daniel Heraty can be reached at [email protected].)