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September 14, 2001
From Americans Themselves: Thoughts After Terror
I watched the blood-curdling images of the planes tearing into the towers, the towers crumbling, people being overtaken by that vast cloud of dust and debris. Over and over again, I ached for passengers making phone calls to announce their deaths. Through it all, I thought: I hope they get these guys. I hope they get the sick bastards who conceived this inconceivable horror.
There are ways in which I feel this vicious assault in my guts, as if it were on my own home and life. Which it was, for ten years. That's how long I lived in the States. And because I did, I'd like to share some of what's been on my mind since that moment on September 11.
When I first got to the US, a green student with a black suitcase, I think I carried with me at least some of those impressions about the place so many Indians like to hold. You know the ones I mean: Americans are unfriendly and uninterested in the world outside; they don't value families like we do; there's tremendous crime on urban streets, and especially in NYC; blacks are dangerous; blacks are badly discriminated against anyway, because racism is so rampant; on and on.
In my time there, all these crumbled away. I have several close American friends, some of the finest people I know. To this day, I think one of them understands me like no other friend ever has. They are just as close to their families as any Indian is. I have walked the streets of several American cities at every hour, as I have on Indian city streets, without any crime rising up to grab me. In my ten years, only twice were things said to me that could have been racist. And I never could understand how and why, or why Indians go about thinking, skin colour should imply danger anyway.
All this to say: once I cared to open my eyes, I knew that Americans are a fundamentally decent, generous people who have built a country that has got many things right. And even if somehow I had missed seeing that, the proof is in the number of people from every corner of the world who call the US home, in all that attracts them there.
True, I also believe the country has done a lot of wrong. From My Lai to the blockade of Cuba, from the Gulf War and the subsequent treatment of Iraq to supporting evil regimes in El Salvador, Chile, South Africa and elsewhere, the record is there for all to see. And yet one of the right things is that you can spell all those out loudly in the US. Not least, Americans do so themselves. In fact, America's fiercest critics are its own citizens. They understand how much stronger a nation they are for encouraging this criticism, this diversity of opinion.
There's so much talk today of revenge, and I have no doubt there will be some measure of it taken. I want to see these people pay. But there are many aspects to that that make me uneasy. It was no surprise to me that I watched an American express much of the same unease -- on TV, in those first frantic and emotional hours, even while his country tried to come to grips with monumental tragedy.
First, to what extent is this payback for America's own doings? Hatred for the US is widespread, and it is by no means restricted to mere envy of its success. In Palestine, in Iraq, among shadowy groups in Japan, in Central America, and even in India, you won't have to search long to find this hatred simmering. Arrogant American policies have done that and one result is September 11. Yet already there are columns and publicly expressed opinions from Americans themselves, speculating and agonizing about this legacy.
Second, where will it end? If the US strikes back, will there be further and unimaginably more horrific retaliation? Yet the TV commentator I mentioned made just this point: there are people who hate us enough to do this to us; we are outraged enough that we will hit back hard; that produces a new generation to hate us enough to strike at us again one day. Where will it end, he asked his baffled hosts, how do we stop this cycle of killing?
Third, the easy conflation of terror with religion. Already there are ignorant, if angry and upset, Americans who have threatened people who are, even look like, Muslims. Yet what a remarkable thing it is that my American friends are writing to me saying: we must not over-react, I hope we will be careful, after all we were wrong in Oklahoma, it's stupid to be angry at every Muslim. What a remarkable thing it is that the Mayor of New York, hours after the blackest moment in his city's history, in the middle of rage against bin Laden and Arabs and Muslims, announces that his tragically short-staffed and over-burdened police force will also protect Muslim and Arab establishments in his city.
Remarkable to me, because in my city, a police officer is actually being prosecuted for leading an attack on a Muslim-owned bakery eight years ago; after which attack he actually rose to become my city's top cop. Remarkable, because in my capital city, the police did just nothing to protect Sikhs from mass murder in 1984.
Remarkable too, because in India we think we know what terror is about. That must be why men more learned than I have already put pen to paper and pronounced solemnly that the targets on September 11 were the US, Israel and India. Our prime and home ministers have put up their hands and offered "solidarity" to the US in its fight against terrorism. (Though one report mentions "disquiet" in official Delhi corridors that President Bush has spoken to several world leaders after the attacks, but not PM Vajpayee).
Which is as it should be, because yes, we have learned to live with terror in India. Like the men who wrecked a Thane hospital because their leader died (2001). Like the men who instigated and cheered riots that killed over a thousand Indians in Bombay (1992-93). Like the men who massacred 3000 Indians in Delhi because they wore turbans (1984). How many more should I list beyond these three? Not only does terror happen in India, we even celebrate the men responsible for it, even bestow titles on them like "Emperor of the Hindu Heart." Even hail them as patriots.
No, we couldn't dream of punishing them and their terror. (Which, if you think about it a bit, may be one reason Bush hasn't yet called Vajpayee).
And all these are before I write of the terror that comes from abroad: the bomb blasts, the years of killing in Kashmir and more.
They have their homegrown loonies in the USA, but people like that do eventually pay the price for crime. They have their faults in the USA, but they seem to know that you get ahead not by finding scapegoats, but by addressing those faults. They have their hate-filled leaders there, but those men generally remain stuck in the tiny pockets of hate they nurture, then vanish into the oblivion they deserve. So it's not just because I have good American friends that I believe they are a fundamentally decent people. It's also because they live in a country that values introspection, questioning and justice.
This is the country that was attacked by a gang of faceless men on September 11. This country that taught me so much, this people I grew to like and feel so at home with. This vibrant, inquisitive and stimulating society.
Yes, I hope they get the evil that struck on September 11. I know that the loudest demands for it to be done right will be from Americans themselves.
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