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Remembering Oneness After 9/11

I remember national coverage of his murder, and the insistent message: We in the United States do not practice this kin...

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There are so very many articles and videos that have been created and shared this week. My voice is a tiny drop in a hurricane of memory. In today’s maelstrom of online media, where 30 second videos compete for attention, an essay seems a bit anachronistic. Still, I have one particular memory that I would like to share.

It is the memory of Oneness.

I grew up in a United States of a gentler time. Values of equality, religious tolerance, and the right for people to pursue their own happiness through education and hard work – this is what my parents taught me it meant to be a US citizen.

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My father served in the Marine Corps, as did my brother. They served to protect and defend the United States Constitution which guaranteed these fundamental rights for all in our country.

When I discovered the teachings of Guru Nanak, I always felt that I had found the “Spirit Guide” of U.S. idealism. The same social ideals infused the life of Guru Nanak and his successors. Respect for women, empowerment for the downtrodden, seeing the One Light in every faith and respecting all religions. Guru Nanak added meditation to the mix.

And I loved it. I loved how my identity as a US citizen lent itself to becoming a Sikh, and how being a Sikh supported the best in my identity as a US citizen.

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The events of 9-11 and their immediate aftermath threatened those values as nothing in my lifetime ever had. On September 15, 2001, a humble Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, paid the ultimate price of intolerance. With his turban and beard, which for me represented similar values to the red-white-and-blue, Balbir Singh “looked like” the enemy. In the name of “retribution,” Frank Silva Roque gunned him down in cold blood while Balbir Singh planted flowers at his gas station.

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Many Sikh organizations will talk about the hate and the backlash after 9-11.

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I respect and honor why that needs to be said. Yet people forget how much love poured out of the hearts of the citizens of the United States when Balbir Singh was killed. I remember because I was there. A team of us from SikhNet and Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere flew to Phoenix, Arizona to do what we could to support the family and the Sikh community during this time.

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I do not remember hate. I remember love. I remember a spontaneous candle light vigil taking place in front of Balbir Singh’s gas station, with flowers and hand-drawn notes, saying, “This is not who we are as Americans.” “We are all One.”

I remember national coverage of his murder, and the insistent message: We in the United States do not practice this kind of religious intolerance. We will not go down this road in the aftermath of 9-11.

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I remember an incredible memorial service for Balbir Singh Sodhi that took place on September 22, 2001, at the Arizona Civics Center. The memorial was attended by government dignitaries, including then-Governor Janet Napolitano, and filled to the brim with 4,000 people from so many different backgrounds and faiths. They viewed Balbir Singh’s murder as an attack on the ideals and values that defined “WHO WE ARE” as US citizens. These people stood in solidarity with Balbir Singh’s family, total strangers on one level, yet united in Spirit on another.

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The vehement, public, local to national rejection of that hate crime is what I remember most. And I was proud of my fellow citizens for standing up for the motto of the United States: E Pluribus Unum: Out of the Many, One.

Guru Nanak’s message is only slightly different. Ek Ong Kaar. Out of the One, Many. In the PR work that I was blessed to do after 9-11, I would make the point over and over again: the Sikh turban represents the same values as the US flag.

We are not the enemy. We stand with these values and will protect them with our lives.

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9-11 was twenty years ago and things change. The United States of my youth is not the United States of today. Christian nationalism has become a significant force in US politics, seeking to establish a Christian theocracy on this soil. Racism has resurfaced unabashed, unashamed, and has reached public heights that I have only read about in text books. And the Sikh community has been on the defensive for 20 years, while hate crimes became more common place, and public outrage of those crimes have diminished into almost nothing. That for me is what I am mourning the most on this 20 the anniversary of 9-11 and September 15th.

Yes, I am mourning the physical victims of the terrorist attacks, and yes – all those who died and were wounded in the war in Afghanistan, and yes – all those hurt and killed in backlash attacks – and yes – all the endless fighting and suffering.

But the Spirit of Oneness – that has been a casualty, too.

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On this 20th Anniversary of 9-11 and September 15th, I would like to say – I remember Oneness. I remember over 4,000 people standing up when the first hate crime happened, saying, “This is not who we are as a people.” My prayer is that somehow, the sense that humanity has a common spirit can arise again. Out of the many, One. Out of the One, many. I honestly am not sure how it can happen. I only know that I long to see it.

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