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Beyond anger

America's response to September 11 needs to be much more politically sophisticate, writes Veena Vasista from Washington DC.

This is an angry, saddened, confused nation. The other day, I was at my neighbourhood launderette in Washington, DC and caught a television news piece on appropriate ways of displaying the American flag. Patriotism is running high. Flags are flying in front of homes, in shop windows, on cars, and bicycles - reminiscent of a perpetual Independence Day. After all, the administration's message since the terrorist attacks on 11 September has been this: the attacks targeted American democracy, freedom, and civilization - all that is great and good in this world.

The President's initial response to the attacks set us up for a 'war against terrorism', which, he says is a 'non-traditional' war. He has admitted, by omission, that we do not know the end point, that we do not know the best tactics and that we do not know how to wage such a war with minimal civilian casualties. And we all remain unclear about the responsibilities of the Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security the President just created. What will it do and how will it be kept in check?

Meanwhile, as has historically been the case, excited flag waving has been accompanied by increased animosity towards anything or anyone deemed 'un-American'. Hate crimes against people of south Asian and Middle Eastern descent - Muslim or not - have reportedly risen dramatically. Mosques have been attacked, and Muslim women who cover their heads in public are afraid to venture outside. Muslims and Sikhs (who with turbans and long beards are seen as potential allies of Osama Bin Laden) increasingly sense that the open display of their traditions and cultural practices could pose a risk to their personal security and acceptance as faithful Americans. South Asian taxi drivers are seeking to ward off potential attacks by displaying American flags in their cars.

The contentious tactic of racial profiling (aka. stop and search) of south Asians and Middle Easterners is under way in the name of national security. (Were white people who looked like right-wing extremists similarly targeted after the 1995 Oklahoma bombing?) Of course people want to feel secure. But moves to expand the powers of state, local and federal law enforcement, as well as the immigration and central intelligence authorities, are provoking references to the McCarthy era and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war.

I was born and bred in the United States. My parents migrated from India in the 1960s. For nearly eight years I lived in Europe, mostly in the UK, before returning to the US last October. At the time of the attacks, I was on a plane in Atlanta, awaiting take-off for Washington. Two hours earlier, I had arrived from South Africa, where I had attended the UN World Conference Against Racism.

My mind fresh with annoyance at US arrogance in the international arena, and keenly aware of the frustration felt by many disadvantaged communities throughout the world with respect to racism, poverty and global market forces, I was at once horrified by the attacks, yet somehow not at all surprised that they had happened.

Why the attacks? In an initial address to the nation, the President talked about the US role in ridding the world of evil. The rhetoric has been toned down over the weeks, but I'm not sure the underlying message has changed. The enemy is now the terrorist and our responsibility as the beacon of hope, freedom and democracy is to get the enemy. Perhaps it is too early, as the nation grieves, for the political class to talk about the ways in which US foreign policy might have contributed to the current global situation, including the rise of the fundamentalism that helped breed the attacks. While nothing justifies the horrific attacks of 11 September, we should not sidestep the critical questions about the motives behind them.

On 11 September, should we choose to listen, we were painfully reminded that our government wields an awfully big stick in the world and that our actions have direct and questionable consequences not only on people's lives abroad, but here at home. Is this the first, painful step down the road to an educated, globally aware American citizenry? Or will blind patriotism rule the day? In the event of the latter, we will have lost many lives without becoming any wiser. Do we not owe at least that to the victims?


November/December 2001