On September 11th, an American freelance photojournalist ran from his apartment toward the World Trade Center after learning a plane had struck one of the towers. Four days later, his body and cameras were recovered from the rubble alongside several fallen firefighters. He was the only journalist to die covering the story and his name is one of 2291 engraved on the Newseum’s memorial to journalists who have lost their lives reporting the news.
His name was Bill Biggart. He was my father.
I try to imagine what he would say if he were alive today, what his reaction would be to this shameful election, what string of expletives would stream from his mouth in response to president-elect Donald Trump. My father, a high school dropout born to an American military family stationed in Berlin after WWII, spent his life documenting injustice. To say that only the elite, only the college educated, oppose bigotry is the very definition of elitist and it lets too many people shirk their responsibility.
We will all be held accountable for Donald Trump.
Mosques and Islamic centers across California have already received letters threatening genocide in the name of the President-elect. This is not okay. But it is also not surprising.
For more than a year, we’ve listened to Trump and his surrogates scream about closing borders, building walls, and creating a registry for Muslim immigrants all in the name of protecting us from terrorist attacks like the one that killed my father.
If there were a chance that banning immigrants and refugees from entering the US could have saved my father’s life, would I have agreed to it? Would I have given my blessing to the surveillance of mosques? Or the use of torture? Would I have said, Do whatever it takes as long as my father is spared?
The answer is simple: No.
As much as I wish my father were alive today, there is no freedom I would sacrifice for another hour, another day, another year or decade with him. He raised me better than that.
My father never wanted to be the story. He used his camera to give voice to ordinary people whose voices were not always heard. Victims of police brutality. The people of Wounded Knee. The IRA. The PLO. As long as he kept his Yankee mouth shut, he could photograph David Duke’s Klan rallies — David Duke, who now proclaims Trump’s victory “one of the most exciting nights of my life.” My father’s privilege — as an American, as a white man, as a journalist — came with a responsibility to expose injustice and elevate the voices of people for whom speaking out carried a greater risk.
I suppose it’s possible that Trump and his merry band of xenophobes actually believe they can stop terrorism by barring immigrants and refugees from entering the United States, though it seems more likely that they know the truth: It is impossible to stop someone willing to die for a cause. They must be aware that most domestic terrorist attacks are not perpetrated by foreign nationals but by American citizens, and that mass shootings committed mostly by white American men pose a far greater threat to our safety. But to say guns are a problem is really to say that we are a problem. It is easier to point the finger elsewhere.
When these same xenophobes claim to propose only a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country until all undocumented immigrants have been deported and terrorism no longer poses a threat, they hope we do not realize that that day will never come. The war on terror is a war that can be fought but never won. There will always be someone willing to die for a cause, someone with nothing to live for and everything to die for.
So when the future National Security Advisor says Islam is “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that must be “excised,” and Donald Trump says, “when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” it’s not difficult to imagine how such a war might be won. Think about what they are saying: Our borders will remain closed until we live in a world without Muslims. Let the horror of that truly sink in. That is what genocide sounds like.
Politicians and terrorists use fear to gain power. They won’t need to take our rights and freedoms by force. They stoke the fear then turn around and ask, What are you willing to do to feel safe again? What rights will you give up? Who will you sacrifice? Your neighbors?
I lost my father. They will get nothing else from me. Not the terrorists and not the right-wing politicians. They cannot have my rights, nor can they have my cooperation and complacency. I refuse to let their ideology of hate and intolerance win.
I refuse to let them spit on my father’s grave.
I was 16 when my father died. He never saw me graduate from high school. He’ll never walk me down the aisle. While I hope he’d be proud of the person I’ve become, I know this with absolute certainty: If I were to remain silent, if I were to shrug my shoulders and turn away because the rights threatened first are someone else’s, he would have been ashamed.
To the politicians who invoke the memory of my father’s death to stoke fear, I say, You are worse than any terrorist, worse than the men responsible for my father’s death. I would rather have another terrorist attack than suspend the civil liberties of even a few Americans. Some values are simply more important. No threat can make what they are advocating acceptable. No fear can make discrimination and injustice acceptable.
If we keep track of Muslim immigrants in this country, where will it end? If we close our borders to refugees out of fear, we are no better than the people who forced those refugees from their homes. Let us remember the Jewish refugees we turned away in 1942 in the name of national security and the million Rwandans killed in the genocide as we stood by and did nothing. Let us remember the internment camps and hundreds of years of slavery. We must remember our most shameful acts so we do not repeat them.
My father held America to a higher standard. I hold us to the highest standard. Perhaps an impossible standard.
But the worst that can happen is that we become the monsters we set out to fight. I worry the price paid to feel safe will be the lives and rights of our most vulnerable, people who deserve better than this, who deserve to have us stand with them and say, This is not okay. This will never be okay.
If we do nothing, history will remember us as cowards and bigots.
My father risked his life to tell stories he believed were important. No matter how much I wish he were here with me, I do not regret the choices he made or the risks he took in the name of a free and open press.
We must not let Muslim Americans and immigrants stand alone. Not because they are the first line of defense against future terrorist attacks but because their rights are our rights and those rights are inalienable.
We cannot be silent now as small and ugly men use fear to excuse what cannot be excused.