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15 Years After 9/11, We're in Danger of Losing Fundamental Rights

Freedom to Dissent, Especially By Calling Out Bigotry, Among Civil Liberties That's Gradually Being Stripped Away

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It’s been 15 years since the Towers came down; 15 years since the very core of who we are as a nation was viciously attacked.

Our country has changed drastically since then — I don’t need to list the myriad of ways we’re not who we once were.

For many of us, the years immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, were filled with a sadness-tinged optimism. Perhaps, many of us hoped, this was going to the catalyst that truly transformed America into who we were meant to be. Perhaps we would heed the call of pluralism and acceptance and elevated debate and passionate discourse-as-patriotism.

Instead, we followed the path toward a nationalism that prides itself on exclusion. We told those who refused to follow every single one of our nation’s policies that they were no longer worthy of citizenship. We told anyone with darker skin or an accent that they weren’t welcome here and we used them as an antagonistic stand-in because we weren’t quite sure who our enemies were. We stopped pursuing meaningful engagement. 

We’ve willfully given up one of our most basic and foundational American rights — the right to dissent. Too many have forgotten how dissent was the foundation of our Republic and that civil disobedience — like refusing to stand for the National Anthem — is rooted in patriotism.

The White Nationalist Movement has become mainstream, and when we try to caution against it people become more upset about how we deliver the message instead of the message itself. We are afraid to be confronted with the reality of our actions.

If there is a lesson to learn from 9/11 — at least, for me — it’s that our right to dissent is so powerful and so important we have to fight for it every day. There are so few places in the world where a citizen can speak out against their own government without fear. If we keep following in this path — the path that continues to embrace white supremacy and racism and bigotry and fear — that right will be stripped away within the blink of an eye. 

There’s a famous quote most people think is by Voltaire that folks like to fall back on: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  However, most people completely misunderstand its intention. 

Defending someone else’s right to free speech does not mean shielding them from critique or even ridicule. Absolutely, yes, the White Nationalists deserve to use their constitutional right to say whatever disgusting things they want, and if a police officer tried to shut them down, I would unflinchingly step between them. But at the same time? I would be shouting down their statements even louder. Guarding someone’s right to free speech doesn’t mean guarding them from societal consequences and it certainly doesn’t mean staying silent in the face of bigotry. 

As Americans, we should be encouraging dissent and discussion. We should be praising those who are working to make our Union more perfect. And we should be calling out those who seek to do us harm, even from within. 

There are very few imperatives we’re tasked with as Americans. Speaking out against racism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry is a requirement in my book. It’s a responsibility that every single one of us is called to. We can’t let that slip away. If we’re going to claim any kind of moral superiority over those who want us dead — and I think that we can — it’s this. It’s our legal right to disagree without impunity — whether it be with one other or with our government or with those who would lead it. 

Today, and every day, I hope we carry with us the power that each and every one of us has to change the world for the better and to refuse to accept the status quo because it makes some people comfortable. I hope we remember our responsibility to speak out against those who seek to do us harm, and I hope we never, ever stay quiet.

Robbie Medwed is an Atlanta-based LGBT activist and educator.His column appears here weekly. Email him or follow him on Twitter @rjmedwed.

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