Remembering 9/11: A Call to Activism

Maureen Murphy reflects how September 11, 2001 shaped her as a journalist and activist and how ten years later, she and two dozen others have been targeted as part of a probe into material support for foreign terrorist organizations.
Media Outlet: 
Al-Akbhar English (Beirut)

Ten years ago today, like everyone else in the US, I felt the dread of the unknown as I watched the terrible looped footage of the passenger planes slamming into the World Trade Center in New York. I had never experienced that fear before or felt the future being thrown into question like Americans collectively felt that day. We all felt vulnerable and at risk that awful day – something that I am now experiencing again as the US government increasingly treats solidarity activists as potential domestic terrorists.

On September 11, 2001, I was an undergraduate student at a fine arts university in Chicago studying painting and drawing. I abandoned my ambitions toward a career in the arts just a couple of days after the attacks. My first day back at school after the events, I had a day-long anatomy drawing class, during which I was painstakingly drawing the same skull for several hours. At lunchtime I decided I couldn't do it anymore. I had to go home and write, to analyze, and try to make sense of the dangers confronting us.

That week I wrote an article published in my school's paper about how a myth was irresponsibly created by the mainstream media that Palestinians had flooded the streets to celebrate the deaths of thousands of Americans — a myth I heard repeated by my classmates. A myth fueled by ignorance. It directly threatened the safety of Americans who practice the faith of Islam and Americans of Arab heritage. The dread and fear grew with each reported reprisal attack against Muslims, Arabs, and other communities in the US.

Later, I co-founded a student group and put on educational events about Palestine. After I graduated, I decided I should see the reality on the ground for myself; I felt a sense of responsibility to change things since my government's policy was a key part of the problem.

I arrived in Palestine in November of 2004 – the same day that Bush was reelected – for an internship with the human rights group al-Haq. My first task was to edit the English-language translations of legal affidavits from witnesses of assassination operations committed by Israeli commandos disguised as Palestinian civilians.

I stayed in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank for a year and a half before I was deported by the Israeli government. During the year and a half I was in Palestine, it became increasingly clear that I wasn't particularly useful there, that my role was here in the US. Over and over I heard from Palestinians that I needed to go back home and educate other Americans about what's happening with their tax money – how US-supplied Apache attack helicopters bomb apartment blocks in Gaza. How a wall is being built up in the Wes Bank, separating farmers from their land. How parents live with the terror of knowing they cannot protect their children from harm at any of the hundreds of checkpoints strangling Palestinians' freedom of movement. How people living under occupation cannot control their own destiny.

So when I came back home I began writing and publishing full-time with The Electronic Intifada, "Palestine's weapon of mass instruction." I joined the Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago. I attended emergency rallies when Israel began bombing Lebanon in 2006. I became active with the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, modeled after the movement that helped bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. I stood with hundreds of others in the freezing rain as students made history by disrupting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech at the University of Chicago. I helped organize educational delegations to Palestine to help build ties of solidarity between US activists and Palestinians struggling for their freedom.

And then, last year, I was among 23 activists subpoenaed by the FBI as part of an investigation into material support for foreign terrorist organizations. All of us who were subpoenaed have refused to testify on civil liberties grounds, and did not show up on our court dates, though it means we risk being put in jail should they compel us to testify and we refuse for a second time.

Since September 11, the scope of the counter-terrorism legislation enacted during the Clinton administration has been dramatically expanded so that a search warrant can be issued on the basis of travel to places like Palestine and Colombia – legal travel protected by our first amendment rights.

And since a Supreme Court decision last summer, what the government considers material support for a group on the State Department's politically-motivated designated foreign terrorist list doesn't even have to be material anymore.

The statute is now so vague that even the New York Times is vulnerable to prosecution if it publishes an op-ed by a minister within the Hamas government in Gaza, since it could be argued that doing so is providing a ‘service’ to a foreign terrorist organization and helping that group achieve its goals by clarifying its position on a given issue. In fact, this Supreme Court decision ( Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project) was made after a failed petition by nonprofit groups who sought to challenge the constitutionality of provisions of the material support law which criminalize the work of non-profit organizations doing nonviolence training with designated groups like the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Tamil Tigers.

It is completely counter-intuitive after September 11 for the US government to criminalize such training, and to call it material support for foreign terrorist organizations, but this is where we're at. And it's not going to be the New York Times that is the test case for the Supreme Court decision – it's going to be those who organize in opposition to the US foreign policy.

The lesson that the US should have drawn from the tragedy ten years ago sadly still is being ignored by those who set policy – the need for greater education and awareness to address the root causes of violence and war. And by criminalizing direct solidarity, the US government is doing the very opposite of that. If Americans don’t learn about the real impact of their government's foreign policy, and organize to challenge it, then the political horizon of this country will remain as hazy as it was ten years ago in New York.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and an organizer with the Committee to Stop FBI Repression