Most of us recall the anti-Muslim violence that skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11. Brown men and women perceived to be Muslim were murdered, attacked, spat on and threatened. Mosques were vandalized with bullets, rocks and Molotov cocktails. Many Muslims cancelled their plans to visit or study in the United States out of concerns for their safety, while those already within our borders feared the worst for themselves and their children.
Despite the pleas of the Bush administration to not blame all Muslims for the violent acts of a few, such language was rendered meaningless by the actions of the U.S. government. In response to 9/11, the U.S. government subjected Muslims in the United States to persistent harassment and intimidation and implemented formal policies to abduct Muslims from all corners of the globe, torture Muslims at CIA black sites, hold Muslims in secret prisons, and deny Muslim detainees even the most basic due process. There were calls for the U.S. military to "nuke" Islamic countries, and for Americans to defeat Islam before it could defeat the United States.
Sadly, violence, intimidation and discrimination against Muslims have remained a staple of U.S. culture since 9/11. And in the aftermath of the violent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, we are again seeing a dramatic surge in discrimination against Muslims in the United States. This time, the hateful rhetoric is directed at a very particular group of Muslims -- those fleeing for their lives from war-torn Syria.
Dozens of state governors have already expressed an opposition to opening U.S. borders to Syrian refugees. Citing a concern for their constituents' safety, their stance is predicated on an assumed link between Muslims and violence.
Two Republican candidates for president -- Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Florida governor Jeb Bush -- have made this assumption explicit by calling for the United States to instead focus on the safety of Christians fleeing Syria, contrasting the implicit trust in those who share the faith of most Americans against the deeply-ingrained fear of Muslims.
Another Republican candidate for president -- Donald Trump -- has called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Terrorism is real, and fear is a natural response. But how we react to our fear is a choice, and that choice serves as a reflection of our values. We can respond with language and actions that promote a culture of hatred and violence against those who practice a faith unknown to the majority of Americans. Or, we can respond in a way that comports with our values of inclusion, diversity, and protection of those seeking refuge.
We can choose to honor those who have been the victims of hatred and violence since 9/11 by refusing to be blinded by the shameful discrimination promulgated by those like Cruz, Bush and Trump -- and instead, seek to promote a culture of understanding, acceptance and kindness.
In the wake of tragedy and fear, we have an opportunity to be our best selves, to unite in our common humanity and quest for peace. We are a country that prides itself on our diversity; indeed, our diversity is so often the source of our strength and resilience.
Let us reject the notion that there should be a religious test for our compassion, and instead open our arms and our hearts to families fleeing violence and war. Let us resist the urge to fear the worst about those we do not know, and instead provide hope to those seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
There is already too much terror in the world. Let us choose decency.
Caitlin Steinke is an American human rights attorney who grew up in the Middle East. She works at the Law Firm of Tina Foster, which represents individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations affected by post-9/11 national security policies and discrimination.