By sanitizing George W. Bush into a harmless old man with different political views, we dishonor the people who lived through or died by the injustices that he caused.
CW: war, torture, death, racism, Islamophobia
I envy those with the privilege to forget, to sanitize the horrors of the past. I can’t imagine the comfort of not remembering—or never even knowing—the terrible things that happened and continue to happen because of President George W. Bush.
I grew up in Orange County, California, or as some called it—Reagan County. It was a rich, white, conservative, Christian place and my family and I were none of those things. That didn’t really matter to me until 9/11, though. I was six-years-old and far too young to start reckoning with things like terrorism, surveillance, war, torture, or Islamophobia. But 9/11 and the next seven years of the Bush presidency taught me about all of that. I haven’t forgotten.
In the aftermath of 9/11, my father planned a neighborhood vigil so we could mourn the lost lives as a community. I remember walking door to door, asking neighbors to bring candles and join us for a night of remembrance. At the same time, President Bush appointed a Director, Tom Ridge, to the newly-created Office of Homeland Security. By the end of 2002, the Department of Homeland Security became its own official department after the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t know what the implications of the unified DHS would be. I didn’t know what the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) was or why I would one day join thousands in calling for its abolition, #abolishICE. Though formed by President Bush in response to terrorism against the United States, ICE has been the cause of terror for undocumented people who have lived their entire lives here. The agency grew under President Obama, who authorized the deportations of more than three million immigrants, earning him the Deporter-in-Chief title from immigration advocates. ICE has happily enforced the directives and laws that created and maintain the crisis at our border. Nearly 53,000 immigrants are held in inhumane detention centers run by ICE; since the beginning of the Trump presidency, 24 immigrants have died in ICE custody.
Though I hadn’t yet been made familiar with ICE, I knew about the Bush-created Transportation Security Administration (TSA). My family flew quite often to visit extended family abroad. Designed to detect threats and keep Americans safe, the TSA is shockingly bad at doing either of those things. In recent undercover tests, the TSA failed to detect nearly 80 percent of threats. To me, it’s clear that the reason for this is the TSA’s obsession with racial profiling, rather than actual threat detection.
In 2007, my family and I were going to Canada to see my uncle and his family. While going through airport security, the TSA agent checking my six-year-old brother noticed his name was “similar” to a terrorist’s on their radar. We were swept away to a private holding room away from our luggage and kept there until the TSA could confirm that a six-year-old child was not an internationally-known terrorist. Not only did the TSA not make me feel safer, the agents who feared my family for nothing more than our last name made me feel anger and shame. I still get to the airport hours too early, as do most American Muslims I know, just in case something similar happens again.
I would be remiss not to mention the USA/ Patriot Act coaxed through Congress by the Bush administration weeks after 9/11. The Patriot Act greatly expanded law enforcement’s ability to surveil American citizens with little to no checks or balances on this power. To me, this ability translated into spying on American Muslims. I remember being so afraid that the FBI or CIA would come for my family for no reason that I wrote to the White House, asking the President why he thought we were terrorists and telling him how I thought it was wrong of him to spy on Americans who were not harming anyone. The White House didn’t even send me a generic reply. My parents joked if they weren’t surveilling us before, they would definitely started after my angry letter.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, President Bush began the longest war in American history. The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 and is still ongoing. The loss of life during this war has been staggering and Afghan people still feel the brunt of this horrific conflict. American airstrikes killing civilians have become a norm and the continued instability in the country due to American interference has yet to improve.
One war in the Middle East was not enough for the Bush administration. Despite the UN’s Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission not finding weapons of mass destruction after 700 inspections in Iraq, President George W. Bush began the war on Iraq in March 2003.
There are many injustices I could highlight. The entire war was an injustice. I knew this even as a child when I was around my peers whose parents supported the grand show of American power in the Middle East. Maybe they didn’t overhear adults in the kitchen talking about Abu Ghraib prison. Maybe they didn’t sneak peeks at the television to see images that would sear into their minds and haunt them in their dreams.
In 2004, the world was exposed to photos documenting unimaginable torture inflicted by American troops on people detained there—people who were overwhelmingly wrongly detained in the first place. The horrors that took place at Abu Ghraib live in the memories of the detainees forever, but so many Americans who saw those photos have forgotten. Many Iraqi detainees still have nightmares about the torture that they lived through—torture that was sanctioned by the U.S. government.
By sanitizing George W. Bush into a harmless old man with nothing more than different political views, we dishonor the people who lived through or died by the injustices that he caused. War, civilian deaths, torture, and surveillance of people who look like me are only a handful of the many crimes of President George W. Bush. I can never forget what he did during his presidency because it still haunts me, the United States, and the world.
Privileged Americans purposefully forget because facing these injustices means contending with the horrors that maintain the status quo in the United States. Remembering means acknowledging being complicit in or willfully ignorant to not only President Bush’s crimes but the crimes of American presidents ever since this country was built on the backs of stolen people, forced to labor on stolen lands.