In the days, weeks and months after the Sept. 11 attacks, as President George W. Bush’s administration launched its so-called war on terror, nearly all space for nuance, dissent and debate in the United States was quickly eradicated. When we most needed to ask ourselves the tough questions, listen to those questioning the conventional wisdom and consider the long-term consequences of our actions, doing so was nearly impossible in Washington, in the media and public discourse.

Today, history is repeating itself. This time we know better, and there’s no excuse to not stop it.

Hamas’ heinous attacks and the Israeli government’s response – collective punishment of 2 million people in Gaza – have created one of the most combustible and escalatory moments in the Middle East in a half-century. With nearly 10,000 Palestinians already dead, according to the health ministry in Gaza, and many more injured and countless at risk, we cannot afford to continue making the same mistakes.

Here in the United States, we’ve already seen a 6-year-old be brutally killed because someone couldn’t tell the difference between a child and Hamas. Recently, an event to bring together Arab Americans to talk about empowerment in Orlando was canceled by their hotel allegedly because of security concerns. This isn’t a one-off. We’re seeing a string of events in which Arab and Muslim communities are being forced to cancel community gatherings because of violent threats.

We’re already seeing calls in Florida to ban pro-Palestinian groups from colleges, and alarmingly, the Anti-Defamation League has urged university administrators to investigate pro-Palestinian groups on campus for the possibility of providing material support for terrorism. We saw this happen after Sept. 11. We know the harm it caused then, and we can’t afford to do the same thing again.

That’s why, in this context, more than ever it’s critical that the president of the United States, every administration official and congressional leaders discuss this conflict responsibly and in a way that doesn’t reinforce the insidious conflation of Hamas with Arab Americans and Muslims. The expectation that a government, especially a democratic one, would ensure that its words don’t silence or put the safety of communities at risk is the bare minimum we should expect.

Advertisement

Unfortunately, recent comments by National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, who said that a cease-fire really “only benefits Hamas,” fail to meet that minimum. The ask for a cease-fire is coming from major humanitarian organizations, a broad cross-section of civil society, including some in Israel, as well as Muslim, Jewish and Arab communities in the United States and around the world. They have demanded a cease-fire because they want to see human suffering in Gaza end. They also believe that the current strategy of the Israeli government will not eradicate Hamas any more than the two decades of the war on terror eradicated terrorist groups like al-Qaida.

In reality, the war on terror created a breeding ground for more extreme groups such as the Islamic State group to form and led to a proliferation of terrorism that continues to this day.

Unfortunately, others in the administration are also constraining public debate and obfuscating conditions on the ground. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also appeared to accidentally equate protesters registering dissent with the Israeli government’s approach with the horrific white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. While this was most probably unintentional, it still is unacceptable.

And perhaps most concerning of all, President Joe Biden said that when it came to the death toll in Gaza, he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.” Yes, the president has said several times that Hamas and the people in Palestine are not one and the same. But these remarks are nothing more than platitudes when hours or days later, he appears to dismiss or minimize the undisputed reality that thousands of people in Gaza, including a horrific number of children, have been killed in the Israeli government’s ongoing military operations.

Right now, we are facing a highly sensitive moment in which one horrific war in Gaza could spread into a regional conflict with direct or indirect U.S. support or involvement. We need clear debate, the ability to dissent without being criminalized and the consistent condemnation of accusations of “terrorist sympathies” against critics, especially Muslim Americans. These false attacks on the very dissent and debate we so desperately need are a clear echo of what we heard all too often during the global war on terror. We know the cost of silence, and the price is far too high.

The immediate focus must be saving lives. Using Islamophobic and racist tropes, even accidentally, in ways that silence debate, on a public stage, prevents that from happening – both in Gaza and here in the United States. When events are fast-moving, many officials often make mistakes. However, the number of times these mistakes have happened and continue to occur by the Biden administration while the threats of violence and censorship of communities continue to increase is unacceptable and creates the appearance of not caring enough to hold themselves to a higher standard.

I’m delighted that the Biden administration has announced the first-ever commitment to a national strategy to tackle Islamophobia – now more than ever, it’s critically needed.

Comments are no longer available on this story