My family immigrated to the U.S. because of the freedom and opportunity it offered. We were amazed by the blessings of free speech, religion and association. We were delighted to see a church and a mosque across from each other in Texas. One would loan the other their parking lot on Fridays and Sundays, respectively. This was amazing to us as we came from a place where religious disagreements often led to violence. We were amazed that political views could be exchanged with the understanding, “I may not agree with your opinion, but I will defend your right to say it.” Where we came from, dissent was often viewed as national threat and quelled. Any financial, legal or other resource to dissent would be threatened and bullied into a boycott. Livelihoods and lives would be lost.
Then we witnessed 9/11. We were shocked and horrified that this could happen in this land of freedom and peace. The loss of lives was beyond tragic. In the aftermath, we saw the tendency in mainstream media to paint all Muslims with the broad brush of extremism. I remember CNN clips of dancing Arabs, feeding a narrative that most Muslims were celebrating this horrific event. I feared my adopted country would turn on me. It helped when President George Bush warned against painting all Muslims in this light. It helped when my colleagues offered support and protection if the need arose. Fortunately, none did. I was not doxed, harassed or fired from my job. There was, however, a dialogue to better understand each other’s religious and political views (me Muslim liberal, my friends Christian conservative). My faith in American decency and freedom was preserved, but my trust in mainstream media took a hit.
I appreciate how important our freedoms are. I see myself as a classical liberal who leans conservative. The violence Jan. 6 at the Capitol was horrifying and heartbreaking. Those who engaged in violent acts should be held accountable. It does not represent me or the overwhelming majority of conservatives. In the aftermath I see the same tendency in media to paint millions of people with the same broad brush of extremism as they did post-9/11. It is worse this time as social media has amplified anger and accelerated response. The monopolies in the rapid distribution of information have exerted their power to censor platforms, ideas, news, or individuals they don’t agree with. They cut marketplace, financial and legal resources for those they have censored. These tactics are eerily reminiscent of the country I came from and I have seen what this can lead to.
The founding fathers created the First Amendment because they knew it is not easy or realistic for one entity or group to decide what is acceptable. We are all subject to our own biases. Think of how arbitrary some lockdown rules appear when a movie studio can set up food tents next to a shut-down restaurant. Speech restrictions appear arbitrary in a similar manner. Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon are private companies but operate almost as utility providers to the flow of information. Their regulating speech is almost like an oil company dictating where we can drive.
My family came to this country to seek freedom. I urge you all in this moment of anger and grief to not fall for the tendency to be divided and restrict freedom, but to come together and preserve the rights that make the U.S. the freest nation in the world.