When you realize you're complicit

It's never too late to do the right thing

The U.S. marked the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this month. I didn’t attend any formal remembrance events, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Aside from the fact that I once lived in the same San Diego apartment complex as two of the terrorists (not while they were living there), and that a friend of ours worked at a company whose founder was on one of the flights, I don’t have any direct connection to the attacks.

But there is one small post-9/11 incident I was part of that I still remember with regret.

A couple years after 9/11, a new family moved in next door to us. I remember thinking it would be nice to not be the newest family on our street anymore. On a cul-de-sac where many of the dozen households had been there between ten and thirty years already, I still felt like we were the “new people,” even though we’d lived there four years by then.

Our new neighbors were Lebanese. They seemed nice enough, although we didn’t see them much. The husband owned a flooring store, and they had a son who was an older teenager.

Our daughter was around five, and there were several families with young kids on the street, so I’d gotten acquainted with some of the other parents as our kids played together outside.

One day, my daughter was playing with the girl across the street and her dad and I were chatting while we kept an eye on them. Then I heard him casually refer to the new family as “the sleeper cell.”

I was stunned. Then indignant. What did he just call them??

But those initial feelings quickly gave way to feeling intimidated and uncomfortable.

His family was established on the street, and he had a habit of good-natured ribbing with with our other neighbors that I was never really a part of. But he was a good guy and could be relied on. He worked nights so was often the parent on duty if I needed emergency babysitting during the day. He doted on his two girls, and at our annual cul-de-sac block party would bring scads of delicious marinated yellowtail he’d caught to share with everyone. Plus, our kids were friends.

But that thing he’d said! Could I just let it slide?

I knew he meant it as a joke. He was always joking. If I said anything, I figured he’d probably just laugh it off and then I would feel like the overly sensitive, too-serious neighbor who couldn’t recognize a joke when she heard one. But not only was it not funny to me, it was offensive, and disrespectful to our new neighbors.

Ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to risk dislodging my place in the complex interpersonal dynamics of the hyper-local, and the moment passed with me saying nothing.

But I’ve never forgotten it—neither what he said nor my timidity.

When there’s a crisis, it tends to bring out the best in people1. I recently read the book 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. Based on hundreds of interviews, oral histories, communications records, and contemporaneous news reports, it is a riveting account of what happened that day in that place, much of it in the voices of those who were there. In large part, it shows people helping each other out and acting for the common good. Some even acted with incredible selflessness and bravery. I want to believe that if I were there, I would have done the same.

But when the crisis is over is when it gets harder to do the right thing.

I’ve heard a lot of commentary over the past week or so about how 9/11 united us as a nation, wistfully wishing we could get back to that sense of unity. And yes, there was an initial kind of how-can-I-help unity, but it quickly devolved into an us-vs-them unity that did not include anyone who was Muslim, Arab, or looked even vaguely Middle-Eastern. My neighbor’s comment was not as directly harmful as the violence, derision, and discrimination that these communities faced in the aftermath, but it stemmed from the same place. And since I didn’t say anything, I was also complicit.

My neighbor was a good guy. Still is. But he also deserved to be called on what he said. Both things can be true.

I wish I could have been braver that day, but the person I was then did not have the tools to be able to do that, and the concept of being complicit was not one I thought much about. Now, I have thought about it. I also have more confidence. And in recent years I have spoken up more often when the situation warranted it.

It’s never too late to do the right thing.

What I’m Reading

I recently finished the 2021 One Book, One San Diego selection Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner. I found this quick read both engaging and enlightening.

Heumann contracted polio as a toddler and grew up disabled in the ‘50s when the prospects for people with disabilities were severely limited. The story follows her life from when she was a young child not even expected to attend school to her career working in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and as an advisor to the World Bank. Along the way she became a fierce advocate for disability rights. A core segment of the book focuses on her key role in the sit-in and takeover of the San Francisco Federal Building for 28 days in April of 1973 in the fight to win the first federal civil rights protections for people with disabilities.

Aside from the fascinating topic, I was struck by how intersectional and inclusive the disability activists were. Heumann doesn’t shy away from describing how disability is affected by one’s race, gender, class, and vice versa, and rightly calls out White feminism for historically ignoring women with disabilities. But the examples of how the activists worked hard to include people with all levels and types of disability were inspiring.

Heumann will be appearing at a free, live virtual event Thursday, September 23rd from 6-7 p.m. Pacific as part of the kickoff for One Book, One San Diego. It should be well worth it.

I have a Bookshop!

I’m excited to announce that I now have my own shop on Bookshop.org!

Bookshop is a socially conscious way to buy books online and a great alternative to that other one owned by the billionaire who is in a pissing contest with that other billionaire. They dedicate most of their profits to supporting local independent bookstores, authors, and publications that cover books, and have pretty much anything you could want book-wise. Best of all, having my own storefront lets me curate lists of books, such as all the books I’ve recommended here on Be Your Own Hero.

When you order through my shop, I do also earn an affiliate commission. From now through the end of the year, any Bookshop commissions I earn will be donated to the International Women’s Media Foundation. I’ll be transparent about the earnings and report on that at the end of the year. My storefront is at https://bookshop.org/shop/louisejulig. I’ll be updating it regularly with writing craft books, my favorite memoirs, and other recommendations, so be sure to check back for new book lists.

I hope this issue of Be Your Own hero gave you something to think about. Have you ever realized well after the fact that your silence made you complicit in something that wasn’t right? How did it make you feel? (I only just realized in writing this newsletter that “intimidated” literally means “made timid.”) I’d love to know your thoughts. Drop a comment below — all respectful discussion is welcome. Do you know someone who would appreciate this issue? Go ahead and forward it to them.

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This is the premise behind Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but have heard it is very good.