(Ryan Black) — Recently, my mom dropped off a plastic bin full of things I had left in her house thirteen years ago when I left for college. I found trinkets, pictures, and a lot of old school things. On top, was a pile of journals – the type we had to keep in elementary school to answer a daily question or prompt.
The first date I intentionally looked up was September 11, 2001. I was eleven years old and in fifth grade. I remember the day well. But I didn’t remember everything. I wanted to know if we mentioned anything about the terrorist attacks in our journals. We hadn’t. The prompt that day was boring — “what magical power would you choose if you could choose any?” I chose flying. Boring.
But a few pages later, eleven-year-old me did address 9/11. On Oct 5, 2001, less than a month after the attack, we were asked:
“If you had to give a ten-minute speech to your school on any subject you chose, what would it be about and why?”
My answer to the prompt surprised me:
“My speech would be about the terrerists (sic) who attacked the World Trade Centers. I would tell them that not all Afganies (sic) are bad. In some places people are hurting Afganies (sic) that they see on the street. If kids started doing that it would be horrible.”
Nevermind my poor framing and referencing Afghans as Afghanies (which is what the money is called in Afghanistan, not the people), those few short sentences made something abundantly clear. I knew, even as an eleven-year-old child, that Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent were being treated unfairly in the U.S. after 9/11. And if I could tell my entire school anything, it would be a defense of those people.
So why, over twenty years later, are adults unable to see how treating Russians in the U.S. unfairly is also wrong, and in hindsight, will be a mark of shame on the U.S. just like the hatred and mistreatment of Muslims and Middle Easterners after 9/11 were?
Russiaphobia Reveals Unfair Double Standard In U.S.
Imagine for a moment you are working in another country and your employer suddenly demands you publicly reject the country of your birth or face being fired. Imagine the country of your birth is run by a despot who imprisons political enemies, represses speech critical of the state, and your entire extended family still lives there.
What kind of choice is that?
Forcing an individual to publicly denounce their home country — while military tensions are at an all-time high, and protesters there are being arrested en masse — is an affront to empathy and compassion. The choice, to create an ethical dilemma that forces a worker to decide to keep their job or keep their family safe, is reprehensible.
Consider Anna Netrebko, the Met opera singer who recently withdrew from future engagements rather than publicly denounce Vladimir Putin.
“Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward,” Met General Manager Peter Gelb said.
Her forced withdrawal came despite her very clear opposition to the invasion itself: “I am opposed to this senseless war of aggression and I am calling on Russia to end this war right now, to save all of us. We need peace right now,” she said. “This is not a time for me to make music and perform. I have therefore decided to take a step back from performing for the time being. It is an extremely difficult decision for me, but I know that my audience will understand and respect this decision.”
She sounds reasonable. She also sounds like she wants to protect her family and maybe be able to safely go home one day.
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Pressure on Russians in the U.S.
Russians in the U.S. are facing other types of pressures too. Russian restaurants and shops across the country have had their doors kicked in, death threats called in, high quantities of 1-star reviews left, bomb threats, and some have even had to change their names and scrub their online presence of anything Russia related to avoid harassment.
NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek sent a Tweet calling for all Russian players in the National Hockey League to have their contracts immediately suspended. A week after the comments, the NHL had yet to comment on the matter or publicly support their Russian players.
Nearly 5% of NHL hockey players are Russian, including major stars like Alexander Ovechkin, whom Hasek personally targeted despite Ovechkin’s calls for “no more war.” Ovechkin previously campaigned for Putin, making him an easy target for Hasek’s patriotic mob mentality.
Like Anna Netrebko’s situation – what if Ovechkin were to speak out and denounce Vladimir Putin? What would that mean for his future, or for his family still residing in Russia? There’s no way to know, but I imagine a celebrity turning their back on Putin wouldn’t sit well with him. And even if Netrebko and Ovechkin and others did denounce Putin, would the words of a singer and a hockey player in the U.S. end the atrocities in Ukraine — or would it create more uncertainty and put more families in danger?
It would be wonderful if Russians everywhere denounced Putin and his war of choice in Ukraine. But the reality is that doing so comes with innumerable risks. It shouldn’t be de-emphasized that Vladimir Putin allegedly had a prominent Russian defector poisoned, and killed, in London in 2006. But that’s not the only realistic fear. Just look at what happened to Americans who tried to do exactly the same thing at the start of the horrific U.S. war on Iraq.
How Did the U.S. Treat Those Who Opposed The Iraq War?
A few years ago, I attended a Chicks comeback tour concert in Arizona (formally the Dixie Chicks). It was great. They hadn’t lost a step. So why did they disappear from pop culture for so long?
Because The Chicks did exactly what folks in the U.S. are currently demanding their Russian employees and colleagues and celebrities do: they denounced an unjust war and the leader who started it. Back then it was George W. Bush’s disgusting and illegal motivated-by-oil venture in Iraq. Today, it’s Putin in Ukraine.
In 2003, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of The Chicks, stood on a stage in London, U.K., and said “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Right on, Natalie!
The band faced immediate backlash for the comments. The group was blackballed from country radio stations and their albums were boycotted by fans. They received death threats and their CD and concert sales declined dramatically. At a rally in one Louisiana town, a 15-ton tractor destroyed their CDs as spectators cheered. The band, which had been one of the most successful groups in the history of music up to that point, seemingly disappeared overnight.
And then they were targeted by the President himself.
“I mean, the Dixie Chicks… They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street,” then-President Bush said.
Natalie Maines and the Chicks were brave and correct in their assessment of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. They took a stand abroad and paid a heavy price at home.
Some people in the U.S. are demanding Russians like Anna Netrebko and Alex Ovechkin willingly face that type of backlash, or worse, in Russia . . . to risk everything at home to denounce Putin abroad. To be clear, Putin and his war should be denounced, but forcing another person to make that decision — to choose between losing their way of life in the U.S. and potentially their and their family’s safety in Russia — does nothing to solve the crisis in Ukraine.
I didn’t have special clarity or perspective when I was eleven years old. I just didn’t like people being mean to each other. I still don’t. That’s why, three weeks after 9/11, I was worried about people being mean to Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent in the U.S. It’s the same reason it’s been so easy and important, over the last few years, to stand with #BlackLivesMatter and #AgainstAsianHate and other movements and hashtags. But Russian people living in the U.S. don’t have a hashtag. That doesn’t mean they don’t still deserve our empathy and compassion.