Editorial: ‘Freedom and Unity’ is not an empty motto


Last week I wrote about the potential consequences of hateful, dehumanizing language and just days later three Palestinian men were shot in Burlington.  The three men—Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed—were friends back home in the West Bank, where they’d gone to a Quaker school.  They’ve been attending college in the States and were in Burlington to celebrate Thanksgiving with Awartani’s American family.  They took a walk in the neighborhood, wearing the traditional black-and-white Palestinian scarves called keffiyeh and speaking Arabic, which was apparently enough to compel a white American to walk up to them and put bullets in their bodies.  

It’s impossible to know what precisely was going through the shooter’s head, though it seems unlikely that there’s an explanation that doesn’t involve the young men’s ethnicity.  

This tragic episode is certainly not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last.  A six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was killed in Illinois in October by his family’s landlord, who’d been worked into a murderous frenzy by the media he’d been consuming.  A six-year-old child who’d had the apparent audacity simply to exist as a Palestinian in the United States.  The happenstance of his birth cost him his life, just as the natal happenstance of the three men in Burlington nearly cost them theirs.  And even though they will survive, they will always carry the crushing burden of knowing that someone tried to kill them simply for existing.

Vermont is much more diverse politically than the national media portrays, but we do often assume a certain slant, especially in Burlington.  As the old joke goes, “the great thing about Burlington is that it’s close to Vermont.”  But this attack offers proof that Vermont is not immune to the same sorts of violence and irrational hatred that have plagued much of the rest of the country. We are not inherently safer or more inclusive; these are qualities we must continuously strive for.  We must continuously ask ourselves how we can live up to the ideals of our state motto: Freedom and Unity.

On a certain level, “unity” here is pretty much self-explanatory: we’re all in it together.  It’s a true Vermont trait and one that we should cherish.  There’s a tradition of self-sufficiency in Vermont, but when a neighbor is in need, people show up.  I’ve seen it time and again in our community.  Yet it means more than this.  It also means that what happens to any one of us happens to us all.  When any members of our community are attacked, we are all under siege.  

And “freedom” doesn’t refer only to freedom from governmental regulation; it refers also to the freedom to live unmolested, freedom to live as oneself, freedom to simply be.  Vermonters value their freedom, as we rightfully should, but we must also value the freedom of others.  We must protect the freedom of others to walk through our towns without fear of being killed just because of where they were born or what language they happen to be speaking.

Vermonters are good people.  Life here isn’t always easy but the sense of community goes a long way toward making up for the myriad challenges.  And we need to protect that sense of community from forces that would try to pry us apart because of our religions or our ethnicities or any other aspects of our identities.  The only thing that should matter is whether we’re good neighbors to one another.  The only thing that should matter is freedom and unity.

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