his 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
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
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?