Akram Shibly, who is the third of four children, was the first of his family to be born in America. That made him the one who could pursue the greatest American dream.
His parents, both dentists who emigrated here from Syria, pointed it out to him.
“You could become president,” they told their son when he was little.
Other members of the family suggested it, too. You were born in America, they told him. You could lead America someday.
You could be the first Muslim president.
His family was saying that lightly, but Akram was a little boy, not even 8 years old, so he believed it. So much so that he asked his barber to give him a JFK haircut, right down to left-side part and upward-reaching wave.
Then 9/11 happened.
Exactly 15 years ago, when Shibly was in third grade, his dreams changed forever.
“I became more aware of how people see me as different,” said Shibly, who is now 23 and a University at Buffalo graduate. His third-grade year gave him a quick education in racism and hatred.
“Hey, Akram,” a girl said to him one day, “you look like Osama bin Laden.”
No I don’t, he thought to himself, just before he offered his retort.
“You look like Timothy McVeigh,” he said, referring to the white, Western New York-bred Oklahoma City bomber.
She didn’t get it, and neither did the other kids around her. But Shibly made his point: Viciousness and violence come in all skin colors and religious beliefs.
“Being Muslim, you had to be aware and alert,” Shibly said.
You still do, today, maybe even more so.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had an indelible impact on our sense of security, service and culture. The mass tragedy of 15 years ago triggered a flow of emotions that still exist today, some more evident than ever. There’s the positive: Strong feelings of patriotism, and gratitude for rescue workers and law enforcement. (Although given the intense scrutiny on police around the country over accusations of racially charged shootings, you could argue those warm feelings have cooled.)
Then there’s the negative, the greatest elements of which far overshadow the small inconveniences to our daily lives like longer airport lines and more stringent border checks. For all of us, there’s the sense of fear: What bad thing could happen next?
But for some of us – a prime example being Muslim Americans, like Shibly – the fear is more personal. Am I, or are my family, or my friends, being targeted?
Let’s drop in on some other lives affected by the terrorism of 9/11.
Adam Cohen was in Algeria when it happened. He was already fighting terrorism. That was his everyday job.
Cohen, now the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo office, was then a 32-year-old terrorism investigator. He was based in the bureau’s New York City office, close to where he grew up in Long Island.
Work had taken Cohen overseas to the northern part of Africa, where he was investigating a plan by an Algerian man to blow up the LAX airport on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. The plot had failed and now Cohen and his colleagues were rounding up co-conspirators.
It was 1:46 p.m. in Algeria, and Cohen was sitting with his hosts and legal attaché when the first plane struck the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Cohen, like so many people around the world who heard the news in the moments after, assumed it was a small plane, probably a Cessna. In the moment, he had no reason to suspect that this was terrorism. There was no information suggesting that his life’s work was about to change.
About 15 minutes later, just after 2 o’clock in Algeria and 9 a.m. back on the eastern seaboard of America, someone walked into the room, leaned in and talked quietly into the ear of the legal attaché.
This was a moment of whispers around the world. The most famous of them happened in Sarasota, Fla., where President George Bush was visiting an elementary school and reading “The Pet Goat” to second-graders. His chief of staff, Andrew Card, interrupted the reading, leaned over to Bush and said quietly into the president’s right ear, “America is under attack.”
The same message was delivered in Algeria to Cohen and his colleagues, who were whisked to the American embassy and watched on television as the towers crumbled to the earth.
Three days later, Cohen was back home in New York, where he spent the next few months investigating the 9/11 attacks.
“You’d be driving around a deserted downtown,” said Cohen, pointing out that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, people weren’t allowed to drive around the attack site in lower Manhattan.
“But there were people standing along the sides of the roads, holding up signs, clapping for you, cheering for you. (They had) signs that were saying ‘We appreciate everything you’re doing,’ ‘We love you, law enforcement,’ ‘Thank you FBI.’ ”
‘I’ll be all right’ – but not
Back in the summer of 2001, Matthew Crane was 17 years old and wanted to become an electrician. The Navy recruiters pitched him what seemed to be a pretty good plan: Sign up now, heading into your senior year of high school, ship off when you’re 18 and graduated, and train in your trade while serving your country.
“I wanted to learn a skill – I was going into the electrician program – and it just sounded like a fun way to do that,” said Crane, who describes the peaceful time of the late ’90s and early 2000s as the “ ‘Clinton Navy,’ where you were going basically to be on a boat, hitting port stops in Hawaii and Guam and partying. It just sounded great.”
Of course it did. So he signed up and swore in. On Sept. 9.
Two days later, Crane was wandering around the halls of Frontier High School on a Tuesday morning when he heard commotion in the classrooms. He poked his head into a room with a television, heard the news about the first plane, and watched as the second jet hit the South Tower.
He realized his life was about to change.
“I knew I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I immediately realized, I had just signed up for the service, and I’m going to be involved in whatever is going on here,” Crane said. “That’s not an accident, two planes like that.”
Still, Crane was OK with his decision to enlist. He kept telling himself: “I’m in the Navy. Wars are mostly fought from the air. I’ll be all right.”
He couldn’t have known it then, but he was wrong.
In 2005, Crane was deployed to southeastern Iraq as part of a combat search-and-rescue squad. His team’s days were varied. Sometimes they were a “glorified taxi service,” escorting senators or reporters at a safe zone, or dropping off Navy SEALs for covert missions. Sometimes they functioned as police, plucking Somali pirates – “a real nuisance” – out of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Other days they were hauling out wreckage: an Apache helicopter that crashed into the side of a mountain at 200 miles an hour, leaving “no identifiable body parts.” Or a tank blown up from the inside by a mine, killing all the occupants and leaving the interior charred and bloody. Left intact, though, was a picture of a man’s wife and 2-year-old daughter. And Crane – in the midst of war – realized: He’s never seeing them again.
“Moments like that don’t leave — I have visions like that that are not going to leave my mind,” said Crane, whose service ended in 2006.
It was then that his days began running not on the adrenaline of war, but on the reality of the world in which he was living.
Which was not the world he signed up for two days before 9/11.
For several years after leaving the service, Crane struggled. He developed a pain pill and crack addiction. He drank every day. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and started getting help through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Today, he’s married with two young sons and has been sober for four-and-a-half years. He’s working at Erie Community College and going to school there, too. His life is good. His challenges are under control. But Crane still struggles.
“For me personally, what was the point of all that?” he said. “Why do I have blood on my hands? For what purpose? I wouldn’t mind stomping Nazis in World War II. I’d have no problem doing that, you know what I’m saying? Because there’s a real valid reason to stop this guy. But we didn’t have that, and a lot of innocent people were dying every day. Whether you were the guy pulling the trigger or not, everybody there has a part of that operation.”
Finding the laughter again
The event was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. It was a comedy show benefiting some cause. Jen Kirkman, then a 27-year-old rising comic in New York City, can’t remember which one. But she does recall clearly the tagline on the flyer: “Nothing will stop this show. Not even a terrorist.”
“It was like an easy joke that never happened,” said Kirkman, who was producing the show and had those flyers printed in August 2001. “Nobody got mad about that. I feel like nowadays somebody would take a picture of it and try to reverse shame us, even though we didn’t know.”
In the days that followed 9/11, she also didn’t know what was in store for her chosen career. Walking around the streets of New York, she saw the military on every corner, helicopters circling overhead and the citizenry seemingly vanished. It was easy to question whether our American way of life – one where levity and seriousness intersect to create a reality that we’re allowed to question – was gone forever.
Would the comedy career she wanted so badly even be an option? Would people want to laugh again?
I guess I’ll have to figure something else out, Kirkman thought to herself.
But that didn’t last long. Within a week or so, New York started to come back to life. People wanted to go out. Kirkman was running a small comedy room in the East Village on a Wednesday night. Several comics got up to perform short sets.
“We were doing jokes but not mentioning what happened,” said Kirkman, who was in Buffalo last week headlining at Helium Comedy Club. “It was very tense in the room until one guy got up and made a 9/11 joke – but it wasn’t at the expense of anyone who died.”
Kirkman recalls the joke going something like this:
If you were in the building in 9/11 but made it out alive, you can use that to get out of anything for the rest of your life!
If you’re at a job and your boss says, “Can you photocopy this?” you can say, “I can’t. I was in 9/11.”
And the response would be: “Oh, sorry, sorry! Sorry to ask you to DO something.”
Finally, the people laughed.
“Part of the grieving process is laughing,” Kirkman said. “You have to cheer yourself up so you can be strong and keep going forward and helping other people in mourning.”
Comedians tell the truth
That was so long ago. Do we feel safer? Can we still laugh? In the 15-year wake of catastrophe, has our society progressed?
There’s a simple answer, but beneath it is a much-nuanced set of realities, and a politically charged atmosphere that can change it all.
Let’s start with the straight-up reality: There’s been no terrorist attack in the United States that comes anywhere near the magnitude of 9/11.
Cohen, the FBI boss in Buffalo, points out that combatting terrorism remains the bureau’s top priority. He’s in position to know more than the rest of us – and so is his wife, who works as an attorney for the FBI. From that vantage point, Cohen says he’s not afraid to take his 6- and 7-year-old children to a public place.
“If I go out with my kids and I’m walking through a mall or sitting at a restaurant, am I worried about sitting there? I am not,” he said. “However, am I aware of where the emergency exits are? Yep, I am. Do I take note of where I can take the kids if I needed to get them out of there quickly? Yep.”
Which answers the common question of today’s parents when they think to 9/11, or the Columbine massacre or Oklahoma City bombing before it, or the multitude of shootings that have come after it: What kind of world am I raising my children in?
Cohen’s answer: It’s a world that requires a healthy sense of paranoia. And it’s a world where the greatest threat generally isn’t going to be what’s physically in front of you, but rather what’s virtually accessible.
“I’m not worried about sending my kids out there,” Cohen said. “Right now, for me, my concern is what they do online.”
Social media, he added, has made the world “a much smaller place and they’re in contact, potentially, with people with really bad intentions.”
Let’s pause on his point: Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have social media. We also didn’t have cameras in every cellphone. We didn’t have YouTube. When 9/11 happened, traditional media wasn’t only the primary source of coverage, it was effectively the only way to find out what was happening in New York City, or in D.C., where a plane struck the Pentagon, or in the Pennsylvania field where passengers heroically downed another Washington-bound plane.
What we did have in 2001 was a plethora of broadcast and cable news channels that covered the tragedy 24/7. That offered anyone who wanted it the opportunity to overload on images and footage and speculation: What went wrong? What else could happen? What are we going to do about it?
It gave people the chance to be reactive.
Crane, the Navy man who enlisted two days before the attacks, saw evidence of that when his service started the next year.
“I was in boot camp with a lot of hooah G.I. Joes who wanted to go and kill the enemy – who signed up on Sept. 12,” he said. “It was a real mix of people in there, and I feel like that was the point at which maybe the Islamaphobia movement really started bubbling.”
As America went to battle, the controversies startled bubbling: Did Saddam Hussein actually have weapons of mass destruction? Are these wars justified? Are they keeping us safe, or are we just endangering our troops and innocent people?
Faith in government plunged. If you paid attention closely to the media, you noticed that some of the most trusted, or at least most talked-about, sources of information – especially for a younger audience – were the people who make us laugh: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, a handful of other comedians, or comedic commentators, who graced TV screens at night.
“Comedians have always been the truth-tellers,” Kirkman said. “The (late-night comics) are seen as comfort. I don’t think people know if they’re going to get the straight truth from politicians.”
Today’s complex reality
Which brings us to the current presidential election, one in which the trust issues plays out in historically low favorability ratings for both candidates. It’s fair to say, too, that the candidacy of Donald Trump was in part enabled by the attacks of 15 years ago. Imagine a major-party presidential nominee suggesting a ban on Muslim immigration before 9/11.
“Donald Trump has given a platform to Islamaphobia,” Shibly says. “He’s legitimized it by making it an integral part of his campaign. That has made the racists and the Islamphobes more emboldened to speak the negativity that’s in their hearts.”
Shibly has seen that racism play out: His brother and mother, who dress in traditional Muslim clothing, have received hateful comments and threats. His family home was egged. Though Shibly prefers to wear button-downs and pants, which make his faith less obvious when he’s in public, he’s gotten nasty messages online.
“Since Trump, I have received a lot of comments, a lot of messages saying, ‘Hey, your religion isn’t a religion of peace,’ from people that were my peers in high school. People I used to hang out with, we used to party, we used to chill. I thought everything between us was cool.”
But he’s doing something about it – something that is a new iteration of another childhood dream. As a boy, after burying his visions of becoming president, Shibly decided he wanted to become a great filmmaker – the “Muslim Spielberg.” He began making videos as a teen and two years ago started work on a feature film script.
Since Trump’s emergence, Shibly has been creating and posting videos that speak out against Islamaphobia. He owns a media company called True Intent Productions and uses the profits from his standard work – wedding and corporate projects, for example – to create free videos that combat racism against Muslims. Some signs are good. For every negative message Shibly is sent, he says he receives more positive ones.
Shibly wants to get back to that feature film. He believes there needs to be more Muslims in the arts and in communications.
“If I could become a positive influence in the media, then I can certainly do wonders for the world,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have to be president of the United States.”
But the bigger question is this: Why couldn’t he be?