It is difficult for me to believe that the September 11 attacks happened well over a decade ago, 15 years to the day now. It is still fresh for me. I still remember hearing the news about what happened in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania on my truck radio that fateful morning as I drove to work.Sept 11 2001

Later that day I saw the images of the horror, the fear, the chaos, the destruction, the pain, and the death.

And then there was the celebration.Sept 11 20011

All of this has still have not left me. Nearly 3,000 individuals died simply because they lived in America; simply because they happened to be Americans. Their only crime was that they represented precisely what Muslim extremists could not tolerate: the ultimate representation of Western ideals, which were counter to their own.

How did they pick their target? Did an American have to look or to behave a certain way? No. Did factors such as skin color, ethnicity, or religion matter? No. Living in America was an unparalleled crime unto itself.

So what does it mean to be American? In the aftermath of September 11, this question has plagued me of late.

The most poignant and stark example I can offer that exemplifies the extremes in interpreting “being American” has to do with the hate-motivated killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15, 2001.

Balbir Singh Sodhi.
(1949 – 2001)

Mr. Sodhi was born in Punjab, India. He was an adherent of the Sikh religion. He immigrated to the United States in 1989, initially residing in Los Angeles, California, where he worked as a taxicab driver. Later relocating to San Francisco, California, he continued to work in that capacity. He saved enough money to buy a Chevron gas station in Phoenix, Arizona and moved there.

roque

Frank Silva Roque. Convicted of Murder, Attempted Murder (2 counts), and endangering a life (a bystander in the Sodhi killing). Sentenced to Death.

 

Frank Silva Roque, Mr. Sodhi’s assassin, was a Boeing aircraft mechanic at a repair facility in Mesa, Arizona. Mr. Roque, who held a criminal record for attempted robbery in California, was enraged by the 9/11 attacks and wanted “to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” (Devout Sikh males grow a full beard and wear a head covering called a Turban) He killed Mr. Sodhi. Mr. Roque immediately sped off to a home that he previously owned and had sold to an Afghani couple. He fired multiple shots at their home before proceeding to a Mobil gas station, where he fired seven shots at Anwar Khalil, a man of Lebanese ancestry. Fortunately, no one was killed in these last two shootings. Motivated by his love for what he thought of as “America,” Mr. Roque, during his arrest, shouted phrases like, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”

Mr. Sodhi, however, also had a burning passion for the America he knew and felt deeply troubled after the attacks on September 11th. Only a few hours before being fatally shot his feelings of patriotism prompted him to go to his local Costco to buy American flags and flowers for display at his Chevron station. At the checkout line, he noticed that the Red Cross was raising funds, and he emptied the cash from his wallet to make a $75 donation for emergency relief workers at Ground Zero.

From his point of view, Mr. Roque killed Mr. Sodhi because he didn’t look like what Mr. Roque deemed to be “American” and was therefore perceived as a threat to Mr. Roque’s homeland. On the other hand, Mr. Sodhi felt and gave from his heart because he knew his country, America, was bleeding.

These are two striking extremes. But both of these men saw themselves as Americans doing what they should after a devastating blow to the American psyche.

What does it mean to be an American post 9/11? It means the same as it did pre-9/11.

Though there is no single definition of being American that fits everyone, and this is a good thing, it is vital that we each establish what that means to us.

After all, doesn’t America’s beauty lie in its multitude and complexity of differences? Differences that we are all a liberty to explore and embrace? The very things that Muslim extremists could not, and still can not tolerate?