Post-Bin Laden: 9/11 and the Conversation We Never Had

Few Americans can forget where they were when they heard about the attacks of 9/11. New Yorkers fled Manhattan while the rest of the nation watched in horror on television. For many husbands and wives, it meant that their loved ones were lost in the wreckage. For all Americans, no matter how far from the World Trade Center, it was a defining moment in our lives, not only as a nation, but as individuals.

The American response to the death of Osama bin Laden was mixed. While some took the the streets in joyous celebration, others hoped that their love ones could now return from Afghanistan. Most were relieved, but many weren't comfortable with the public celebrations that broke out, feeling that celebrating death is not a part of our national DNA. While I took part in the conversation through Twitter, many took their thoughts to the blogs, including Paul Raushenbush, who shared the emotion contrast, saying, "It is a strange and conflicting emotion to celebrate a death. My professed beliefs include the redemption of evil and the potential good in all humanity. Yet I felt a sense of exhilaration when I read the headline 'DEAD' about Osama bin Laden."

In a sense, I think the conversation about terrorism is over. It's not that terrorism has ended, but I feel that from now on, it's a topic that only generates heat, and no light. In the name of fighting terrorism, many Americans bought into Osama's worldview: that we are suspended in a cosmic struggle between Western Christendom and Islam. From a loss of civil liberties to societal impunity to those who spewed bigotry in the media and politics, the American Muslim has been singled out in ways that cannot be called American. Maybe it's time to have the conversation.

This is the other conversation. The one about who we are as Americans, and how we treat each other. We often like to see the world as bipolar, right versus wrong, but we must acknowledge the world is not so binary. In fighting such great evil, we Americans slid from the moral imperative, only hurting ourselves in the process.

But there is hope. Since the controversy surrounding Park51 took the nation by storm, a counter movement has been awakened. Many have organized in support of religious pluralism. I have spoken with activists who started interfaith groups in virtually every community with a protested mosque, from Temecula to Murfreesboro.

Nowhere has this been a more vital discourse than in New York. Echoing the thoughts of many, Odyssey Networks is hosting an event May 10 called "9/11: The Conversation We Never Had." At this event, leading faith leaders like Rabbi David Saperstein, Eboo Patel and Bishop Yvette Flunder are coming together around the issue of religious pluralism in the post-bin Laden America. This is only the beginning, as many organizations are ramping up local efforts in dialogue and pluralism in New York. Prepare New York, the largest of these coalitions, has committed to hosting 500 conversations promoting religious pluralism and hosting a large commemoration on Sept. 11.

In Sunday's speech, Obama shared an idea that stuck with me: "Tonight we are once again reminded that Americans can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history." Now that we have entered the post-bin Laden America, can we dream bigger? This begins with challenging ourselves to carry out the American promise of pluralism given to us by our forefathers, and safeguarding them for our children. Maybe this Sept. 11 can be what my friend and mentor Eboo Patel has been calling "our Tahrir moment," enabling us to take the baggage from 9/11 and transcend it into wisdom for the American future. This is only the first step. From there, perhaps we can once again set our minds to more than murder and beyond bias. Whether it is our generation's moon landing, energy independence or the outlawing of lobbies, we must look to our dreams on the horizon, not our fears in the shadows.

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