There are moments in the collective psyche of a country that the ravages of time can’t dim or erase. The destruction of the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001 will remain indelible in the collective psyche of the civilized world.
Americans of an earlier generation narrate with great emotion the exact chore or errand they were engaged in when they heard about the destruction of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy. Many of us now understand the reasons behind their doing so; indeed we will react the same way about the events of September 11 when questioned by future generations.
Many Indian-Americans were involved in the tragedy and have yet to find their feet after being swept away by this whirlwind. Some of us had friends and relatives working in the area and have escorted guests on the customary tour of NY City. We have undergone the agony of waiting for the news of near and dear ones, a bloody lottery whose results convey no pleasure whatsoever.
Time is the greatest healer, say the survivors of momentous tragedies. Days, perhaps months, of heart-wrenching grief will pass before we accept the magnitude of the tragedy. Prayer, introspection and hope for humanity at large are possibly the only companions in this journey with an undefined terminus.
America has collectively responded with an outpouring of grief. The empathy shown by the Indian-American community stems from their trial by fires—the deadly Bombay blasts of 1993 affected Indian morale just as the WTC’s destruction did the American morale and brought terrorism into the average Indian homes. The Coimbatore blasts of early 1998 revealed to Indians the probable circumstances of the denizens of Beirut, Belfast, and Srinagar, where every day successfully spent dodging terrorist bombs and bullets is a gift from the Almighty.
If these incidents have helped Indians and Indian-Americans appreciate the destructive power of fanatical ideology firsthand, they have also provided us with the inner strength and wherewithal to react appropriately to tragedies. It is important that such experiences be shared with the wider American community and help them come to terms with the tragedy and successfully withstand the trial by fire.
We should also take pains to point out that hateful action serves only to widen the chasm of misunderstanding.
Hate begets hate, as was painfully evident in the events of 1992-1994 in India. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 led to the riots of January 1993 in Bombay, which in turn led to the infamous March/April blasts of 1993. The resultant rioting, which probably inspired much of the subsequent unrest, claimed many innocent lives.
We owe it to ourselves to convey this message to the American public amidst the news of mosques being vandalized in Washington, Illinois, and Michigan. The calls for revenge from the U.S. government, indeed a full scale war, may lead to a show of force on those people whose connection with Osama Bin Laden is no closer than the average American’s connection to David Koresh. The resulting situation will parallel the disgraceful treatment of Japanese-Americans during the 2nd World War.
While the incident certainly involves Osama Bin Laden and his band of terrorists, the vast majority of Muslims and Arab-Americans are law-abiding citizens who are as appalled at the behavior of their brethren as the average American at the deeds of Timothy McVeigh. Soothing words of an introspective nature may well go a long way in addressing the array of fingers pointed at Arabs and Muslim communities.
The Government of India has assured the U.S. of all assistance possible in containing terrorism. It has also astutely drawn attention to the need for distinguishing between confusing terrorists and their beliefs with Islamic doctrine. Confusion, in fact a convergence between the two, may exist in the American public psyche.
Lastly, it is important to dwell on the possible long-term effects of this momentous tragedy on Indian-American relations.
India and America will probably be drawn closer in their quest to protect themselves against Osama Bin Laden, who publicly announced his avowed hatred for both countries in 1998. The proximity will substantially reinforce the mutual political connections and set a steady and firm course to a relationship that was antagonistic through the Nehru and Indira Gandhi regimes and has been ambivalent and indifferent since. Given that trade and technological relationships continued to grow despite the imposition of restrictions in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear blasts, we can expect to see the benefits of the political proximity to influence every sphere of interaction.
And the bond that will collectively unite our countries was what then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin proclaimed to be the Eleventh Commandment in the aftermath of the legendary 1976 Israeli rescue of a hijacked El-Al flight in Kampala’s Entebbe airport- Thou shall not bow down to terrorism.
S. Gopikrishna writes from Canada.