Eight years ago today, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot five times in the chest while planting flowers in front of his Mesa, Arizona gas station. Frank Roque, the shooter, didn't know anything about Balbir except that he wore a turban. Balbir died while Frank drove away.
I was 18 at the time, and had just started college--9/11 was my first day of classes. I didn't wear a turban, but I had uncut hair and beard like my Sikh ancestors. People had told me well before 9/11 that I looked like Osama bin Laden. (Then again, other people said I looked like Jesus. Let me tell you--it's tough to be a human Rorschach test.)
In Columbus, Ohio, where I lived, gas prices shot way up the day of the attacks. Word spread all over campus--if you have a car, go get gas now! People didn't know how far the attack would go yet. An apparent accident had turned into an attack, planes were in the air, no one knew who had done this but most people suspected it was Arab terrorists...I was nervous to leave campus to go to a store, not knowing how people would react to people like me in their midst. I went anyway. Most people were busy watching the TVs there and didn't notice me at all.
I wonder if a few people tried to hoard gas in Mesa, too, on the 11th, though I don't think there was price gouging there. Wonder if Frank Roque went to Balbir's station that day and came back three days later, or if the reports in later newspapaers were right and he was just driving around looking to take vengeance on the "towelheads" he blamed for the attack.
On September 15, 2001 Balbir Singh Sodhi died. Some Sikh community websites posted a memorial sheet you could print out for him. I did, but was afraid to put it on the front of my dorm room door, where everyone could see. I emptied out my top dresser drawer and put it there instead for the first few weeks. (If I'd have been among the children of Israel in Moses' day, I would not have been passed over.) After a while, I got braver, or else--who am I kidding?--America turned out to be calm enough that I no longer needed to be terribly brave to put a poster up for the dead.
The poster I kept in my drawer for the first few weeks.
This is a good country. There have been times and there are places where an event like 9/11 could have sparked thousands of senseless killings and not just a few. There are places where suspicion and hateful speech pour over into violence far more easily. In America, the decency, sensitivity, and humility of the majority of citizens are stronger, in most cases, than the voices of anger and hate. Plenty of scary things happen. The most provocative talk show hosts rant and rage (may the blood of the innocent haunt them)--but most of us know not to listen or to let resentment run away with us as they do.
When Frank Roque was arrested, he shouted "I am a patriot!"
Thanks be to God for Americans who think that patriotism is more about loving our neighbors than finding something un-American to hate.
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