Originally published (?) on the WBEZ blog.
I recently went to the Harold Washington Library: spending time there makes me feel like I’m surrounding myself with the best words, the most current information, and the most well-informed Chicagoans in the city. After poring over books, magazines and even a roll or two of microfiche, I got in line to check out my items. The woman behind the counter seemed in an unusually good mood; she smiled at patrons as she scanned their books and wished them good day as they departed. Even the security guard seemed happy to be checking people’s bags as they exited.
As I stood there, I noticed a young man walk through the electronic gates. He walked slowly into the lobby and then stopped. He wore a heavy green coat closed up to his neck, he carried a large black duffel bag, and wore a crocheted topi atop his closely shorn head. I watched him as he set the bag down beside his sneakered feet and bowed his head. He was silent: then he shouted something in a language I didn’t understand and threw his arms wide apart. His voice echoed off the marble floor and high ceilings. For a moment he disappeared, replaced by a blinding, instantaneous shock of white light. Then his bag and body became a ball fire; an eardrum-shattering shock wave shook the room, bringing with it a cloud of fire that engulfed us all. Shards of computer became dangerous shrapnel, lodging in the faces, throats and limbs of internet users; fiber arts, sculptures and paintings were ruined by ashes and fire; books and magazines were swallowed by the flames, and more than half the library’s magazine collection was ruined. By the end of it all, he’d killed 37 people, including himself, and wounded dozens more.
If you haven’t heard about the Harold Washington suicide bomber I’m not surprised; I made him up. I made him a Muslim to highlight the stereotypical perception of Islam as a religion of intolerant, violent fundamentalism. It seems like people are blowing themselves up all the time. I feel like I can’t turn on NPR without hearing about someone in Pakistan who has killed and wounded people because of a well-placed bomb. What is happening in that corner of the world that motivates people to strap C-4 to their chests and blow themselves to Paradise, along with dozens of their closest strangers?
Ten years ago this kind of violent demonstration in the name of religion seemed a far cry from the American experience. Eight years ago, on a Tuesday morning in September, the consciousness of our nation was changed forever when a handful of men enacted the ultimate suicide bombing. What happens now? Travel security has gotten tighter, countries are strengthening their borders, governments are testing bombs in deserts and oceans, and out of fear and misunderstanding, conservative politicians the world over are trending toward racist nationalism. But people in Pakistan are still jumpy about going to work, to the city center or government buildings, maybe they’re even nervous about having a coffee in a local café; there are people in this country who still won’t fly after 9/11. Given the nature of the world today, it’s not hard for me to fear being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But what am I as one person to do? I cannot change the mind of someone who does not know me, and yet hates everything I am based on the difference of our nations and our gods. If he finds me in the library, or the Daley Center, or Starbucks, I can only hope he thinks twice before hitting the button. I tend to think pursuit of peace begins in my mind, by checking my assumptions of other people, and softening my heart to the difference that makes the world so interesting. Ultimately, I pray: I pray for my leaders, I pray for the soldiers, and I pray for the person whose faith tells her murder is an act of worship, that one day she might discover how to worship from a place of love instead of hate.