On September 11, 2001, at 8:55 a.m., Central Time, I had just walked into my 9 a.m. journalism class at Texas Christian University. A student came in to tell me to turn on the TV set in the classroom—she had just heard something about a plane crash in the heart of New York City. I turned on the set and the class turned into a live example of journalism in progress. A cataclysmic event that shook the world was unfolding in front of the class. I decided to wait and continue watching instead of turning to my planned lecture.
Anyway, to make this story short, I watched—to my dismay—the media coverage through the eyes of an immigrant—a naturalized American citizen. Danger lurked in the images and text that engulfed society in the days that followed America’s most shocking and tragic domestic man-made event. Any brown-skinned immigrant from Asia (and worse—one with a beard) could lose his cherished freedom in the freest of countries. He would be a sitting duck. And, as any journalist would, I sat down in my TCU faculty office, and penned a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram which was published under the headline "Media must be careful during times of crisis." The column was intended to be a reasoned voice, contrary to the currents of public opinion—which included shock, disbelief, humiliation, utter grief, sadness and yes, a desire for revenge. Find the culprits. Bomb the country that is responsible for such a cruel infliction of pain. The column ran on the Op-Ed page, its second paragraph starting with the words "In times of such enormous tragedy, the media become more than silent spectators. They become active participants" and later making the point that "These events are dramatic by themselves—they do not have to be dramatized. The events are sensational by themselves—the reporters and editors don’t have to sensationalize. The events are provocative—the journalist doesn’t have to be the provocateur. But words and images are not necessarily value-neutral."
This was a courageous act, indeed—both the columnist to write it, and for the newspaper that decided to publish it. The entire country thought one way; we chose to embrace risk by publishing an alternative sentiment (under a boldfaced note of caution that said “Our news sources must guard against turning cultures or religions into villains”) for its news media. The column ran on September 15, 2001—four days after the events of 9/11.
On the same day, September 15, 30 miles down I-30, Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani, left his four little daughters and wife and went to his usual work at a convenience store in Dallas. He never returned. He became the victim of a hate crime in the hands of a White supremacist. It was a 9/11 revenge attack, according to the Dallas Morning News. Hasan’s long-held desire to become a U. S. citizen never came to be a reality. There were other revenge homicides in the U. S., including that of a Sikh immigrant from India who held a similar dream—the path to U. S. citizen—who was gunned down in the Western United States.
So, what’s new here? The story has come full circle. On March 16, ten years after the death of Hasan, his daughters Nida, Usna, Anum, Iqra, and his wife Durree, stood beaming during a naturalization ceremony and became U. S. citizens. Ten years of agony, trials and tribulations of living under a specter of deportation—and they finally tasted ecstasy.
This story holds the hope that the media would be more cautious in times of crises. Cultural diversity under peril is not something American journalism understands well. It is still largely an academic concept. Operationalizing the concepts of "otherness" and "difference" into professional practice remains a challenge. We see the media becoming more sensitive to issues of race, ethnicity, gender and other differences. But, the true test will come when journalists, citizens, and immigrants alike perceive such rational coverage and selection of sources as matters of life and death, not merely credibility.
The evolution of how media cover and audiences accept caricatures or stereotypes or oversimplifications goes on. But, for now, the story of the Hasan family can stand as a story of the triumph of an American ideal.