When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, Jack O’Reilly wasn’t mayor of Dearborn. Then a member of City Council, he wasn’t actually in Dearborn that day, either. But he remembers where he was.
“We were in the Upper Peninsula at a conference (for Michigan Works),” he recalls. “We had to cross the bridge coming back and they were worried the bridge was closed. That initial sense of not knowing the extent of what was going on was really amazing. I was thinking about my family and I still remember that whole emotional rush of the uncertainty.”
“Nobody could quite be sure what was going on,” he continues. “There was that moment of real panic about the extent and how many of these are going on and is it going to happen in any other part of the country?”
But though O’Reilly knew immediately that the events of that day would have some impact on Dearborn, he couldn’t predict exactly how the ramifications of 9/11 would play out. The media attention on the city, already notorious for its large Arab American population. The backlash against its Muslim residents. The hate it would bring to the doorstep of .
“There’s a fear that when people themselves are afraid and they’re uncertain and they feel like they’ve been attacked … there’s that sense of one, knowing who the enemy is, and two, doing something about it,” O’Reilly explains. “So our concern initially … was that people might act out on that anxiety and fear and pick Dearborn as a target–to say, ‘Here’s where the enemy lives.’”
Immediately, the city planned a 9/11 candlelight vigil. It’s an event the city hopes to at the , with O’Reilly–now mayor–leading the way.
“That (first) memorial was planned almost instantaneously as a community response to say as a whole community that we feel the same way,” O’Reilly recalls. “We feel the act horrific; we have great sympathy for the families and we pray for everyone who was injured or killed. We wanted to be clear that was the message.”
And while the initial negative consequences of 9/11 did not play out exactly like the fears of city officials, O’Reilly has had his fair share of anti-Islamic–and anti-Dearborn–protestors. From Quran-burning Pastor Terry Jones to Westboro Baptist Church to the Acts 17 Apologetics, Dearborn has been as much a haven for hateful agendas as it has been for news crews and video cameras.
“Ten years ago, we were fearful that people would come here to make Muslims in Dearborn a target,” he says. “Fortunately, it didn’t really happen in any real way. But now this new evolution is another way of giving a face to the enemy. They come here so they can get pictures of Muslims and use those images and they can edit film into making them look violent. And it’s with the purpose of somehow disenfranchising them–characterizing them as un-American or as having some ulterior motive.
“The danger is still very real.”
And though perceptions and realities have changed drastically since 2001, the sense of protectiveness O’Reilly felt 10 years ago for his hometown has not.
“We are pushed into a defensive mode,” he says of those who wish to misrepresent Dearborn. “But it’s really important that our response is very measured and very informed to say, ‘You’re mistaken. Your perception is mistaken because we’re a community. We live together peacefully.’”