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Why aren't we treating Donald Trump like we treat other terrorists?
Trump and the violent movement he inspires are terrorists. The only thing stopping us from acting like it...is racism.
I was a junior in high school 20 years ago when I watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers from my chemistry classroom. I remember watching, incredulous, hoping and praying and wishing that the terrorists who just attacked my country didn’t do it in the name of a twisted interpretation of my faith. They had.
The world changed that day. The threat of terrorism loomed always around the corner—color coded so you’d never forget. Airports went from the places we saw our loved ones off to the places from which we prayed they’d come home. America went to war—permanently. We sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. We got so good at war, we started doing it without soldiers—exporting war by drones over Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia.
For my family—and the broader Arab and Muslim communities—9/11 was profoundly personal. My brother’s name is Osama. Mine is Abdulrahman. Our names, faces, stories, and faith became cause for extra scrutiny. I learned to look out for the SSSS (“Selected for Secondary Security Screening”) in airports, to expect the humiliation of having my body and belongings searched in front of passengers with whom I’d be sharing a small airborne metal tube for the next few hours. I learned to expect a certain set of questions about “why they hate us.” And every time I’d hear about this or that awful happening in the world, I’d hope and pray and wish again that the terrorists didn’t do it in the name of my faith.
Then nearly 20 years later, on January 6th, 2021, I watched terrorists attack the symbol of my country and the Democracy my parents came here to partake in decades ago. And 36 year-old me was taken back to the pain of that high school chemistry classroom.
But there were differences: I didn’t have to hope or pray or wish that these terrorists weren’t people who looked or prayed like me. No, this time I knew exactly who these people were. Indeed, they were the twisted endgame of an ideology rooted in its opposition to an America that includes people like me. They’re the ones who believed that “patriotism” was another word for white supremacy, that protecting freedom meant taking it away from others, and that endless war is the only way to peace.
I’ve come to know them well. They were the ones who questioned my allegiance to our country—ironically—for having the audacity to aspire to the highest ideal of American citizenship and run for office. They were the ones who harassed my family and me, littering a local grocery store with pamphlets featuring pictures of my wife and me and the “threat” we posed to America. They were the ones who threatened us with death.
And now they were threatening our democracy. We all knew who these people were. And we knew exactly who had brought them there. Just like the nineteen hijackers who attacked our country on 9/11 were recruited, radicalized, and reassured by Osama Bin Laden, the thousands who attacked our Nation’s Capitol on January 6th were recruited, radicalized, and reassured by Donald Trump. He exploited the bully pulpit of the Presidency to spread the Big Lie to cajole his supporters to try to overturn American democracy for him. He’s the one who commanded them to march there to “defend” their country.
As scary as the events of January 6th were, here’s what’s truly concerning: the world changed after September 11th—but the world is not changing after January 6th. Instead, we are normalizing what happened by failing to bring the attack’s mastermind to swift justice. We are falling for bad faith arguments that holding people accountable for their terrorist insurrection risks “dividing us further,” or that unity demands that we move on. We are pretending that the crimes committed against our democracy are simply a matter of petty political disagreements rather than full-fledged attacks on our country orchestrated by petty politicians.
Ironically, many of the same voices who pounded the drums for war after 9/11 are pounding the drums for Donald Trump now. For them, it was never about our democracy, our freedom, or our security. Instead, it was about “them” and “us.” People like me, despite being born and raised in this country, will always be a part of their “them.” And people like Trump, who orchestrated an attack on the very foundation of our democracy will always be a part of their “us.” The racism implicit in that is what we must uproot right now.
Make no mistake, white supremacist terrorism is on the rise. The “Proud Boys,” the “Oath Keepers,” the “Bugaloo Bois,” all of them are standing back and standing by. They are watching what we do now. Treating Trump with impunity normalizes the attack he orchestrated and emboldens the terrorists to do it again. It justifies the racism inherent in the double standard that has already shaped the diverging aftermaths of 9/11 and 1/6.
There is so much that was done after 9/11 in the name of “keeping us safe” that I cannot justify—actions, policies, and wars that I believe ultimately made us less safe. But holding Osama Bin Laden accountable is something we got right. It sent a message—attacking our country comes at a cost. We have to send the same message we did after 9/11: If you attack our democracy, we will hold you accountable.
So, yes, Donald Trump deserved his impeachment just like he deserves to be convicted and removed from the right to ever run for office again. Of course. Every single member of Congress who believes in an America true to the ideals we claim for her has a constitutional—a moral—obligation to hold Donald Trump accountable for his terrorism. Refusing to vote to convict would be nothing short of hypocrisy rooted in racism. And that’s just the minimum standard. In fact, he deserves a lot more than a simple impeachment—he and those who helped him attack our democracy deserve to be held accountable for their crimes to the fullest extent of the law.