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No time for coffee in Copenhagen

TABISH KHAIR is not writing about the numerous lives lost in a senseless and criminal act of violence on September 11. Instead, he writes about the voices he has heard thereafter; a sound that has a certain tone to it and which has set him wondering about abstract hatred and prejudice.

THERE are moments that cleave Time into two. Everything that happens afterwards happens in a different world. World War II was one such moment for Europe. The suicide-hijack-crashing of four passenger planes and the destruction of the World Trade Center is such a moment for the world.

I will not write about the 5,000 lives lost in a senseless and criminal act of violence. Such human loss escapes the limits of language and representation. One can only stand silent in front of the monuments of sorrow that tens of thousands - relatives, friends, colleagues - will carry in their hearts for the rest of their lives. It is a sorrow the rest of us can only share in silence.

I cannot write about silence. And I should not for, in Copenhagen, I have been deluged with sound: the opinions of ordinary people, the film-like coverage of the tragedy by Cable News Network (CNN), the voices of commentators and politicians. Much of this sound had a certain tone to it and that tone set me wondering. Is there much of a difference between the terrorists who struck back at a group of politicians by targeting tens of thousands of innocent people and those voices that seem to be using the cruel act of a handful of presumed Islamic terrorists to tarnish and blame entire populations of Muslims and Arabs? Do not both the acts demonstrate the same type of abstract hatred and prejudice?

But the questions never end. On the margins of time, in the split space between worlds, one is always deluged with questions.

For example, the first Danish person who brought me news of the tragedy said that he was against violence of any kind and added that he would understand it if Americans decided to hit back. Why is it that we always justify our own violence, while the violence of the enemy is sheer sacrilege? Isn't that why there were shocking pictures of some Palestinians celebrating: people who have become so used to the idea of missiles being launched at their own buildings by Israeli forces and the notion of reciprocal violence that they could not feel the inhumanity of their celebration?

But, then, is this what we can write about: this spiral of violence and inhumanity? Is this immense tragedy going to remain at such a general level of discourse?

The answer seems to be "yes" if various media discussions in the West are to be believed. But it has to be "no" if we are to salvage some sense from the wanton destruction.

It is easy for us to sit here in our cosy sitting rooms in Copenhagen, holding a cup of coffee, munching a biscuit, watching the tragedy unfold almost as fluently as a film on the idiot box, and speak in general terms. What we are doing is celebrating our own humanity, and all human beings - even terrorists - are convinced of their own superior humanity. Many of the most inhuman acts known to humanity have been the consequence of such a conviction. We need to go beyond it. We owe it to the victims of the tragedy to go beyond it.

The second person who called me with news of the tragedy was my father: a devout Muslim doctor who has lived most of his life in a small town in Bihar. He was shocked by the news. How could anyone do this, he said again and again. The word he used was "anyone". I went back to the TV and, in spite of the fact that no one knew anything about the identities of the terrorists, I did not hear too many people say "anyone". I heard "Muslim", "Islamic", "Middle Eastern", "Arab".

These were people who had already decided to exclude entire populations from the circumference of their definitions of humanity. My father's "anyone" had been reduced by many of these contributors to "Arab" or "Muslim", even to the very type of an Arab or Muslim. I could feel the irreligious "Muslim" in me cringe every time I heard such discussions. I could feel my father being put in the dock.

It is so comfortable, this celebration of our own humanity. It can be so inhuman, this celebration of our own humanity.

But what about violence?

Thomas Burnet, the late 17th century English divine, wrote that the Roman Catholic Church persecuted prophets of Apocalyptic violence (even though Apocalypse and the millennium were prophesied in the Bible and, as such, should have been welcome to the church), because it was in those days a church of privilege. Apocalyptic violence, Burnet argued, was always the last resort of the persecuted and would be disliked by those who "have lived always in pomp and prosperity".

Violence, in other words, is seldom a free choice. It is predicated upon most individuals by circumstances. These individuals are usually those who labour under an overpowering feeling of injustice and deprivation. However senseless it might be, behind all violence lies the rubble of shattered hopes, of real and imagined injustices, of human desperation and, consequently, inhuman hatred. Let us not take refuge in the easy excuse that we are against violence. For all of us, given certain circumstances, are capable of violence or sympathy with violence. While a thousand candles have been lit in Copenhagen for those who died in the United States, let us also light a candle or two for those who die - and thousands do every day, with or without "Western" complicity - in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda .... Let us not traffic in the worth of human lives.

No, large descriptions like "violence" do not help if we stay confined to that general level. Neither does the kind of cry for vengeance that one heard in the voice of many Americans and Europeans. It is true that we have to take a stand against violence. Not just violence of one kind, we have to take a stand against all kinds of violence - the violence of terrorists as well as the violence of State agencies, physical violence that leads to the death of bystanders as well as economic violence that leads to the starvation of millions in a world that has enough to go around. More than enough.

It is time we in the West think a bit before we bite into the cake of our affluence and drink the coffee of our civilised condemnation.

If general sentiments will not do, what, then, about the specific lessons that we can draw from this tragedy?

One of the things that this outrage has demonstrated is the ineffectiveness of any kind of military shield. The only shield that can be effective is the shield of a more just world. And for the world to be made just and equal, it not only needs some of the resources of the affluent, it also has to be made democratic.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has made itself into the target of extremist groups largely because it has tried to go solo or exert undue influence in certain international quarters. The internal democracy of the U.S. seldom gets translated into international democracy. Had certain decisions been taken through the channels of the United Nations (not a military alliance of the privileged, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)), the U.S. would have been only one nation among many. The burden, the "blame" and the risks would have been shared. There are advantages to democracy at the international level, but it has to be true democracy. And the final lesson is that of the dangers of abstract hatred and prejudice. The act of one leader or a group cannot be blamed in a generalised way on an entire people or country, as the terrorists seem to have done. But this is a lesson that we should also remember every time someone uses the dastardly act of a handful of presumed Islamic terrorists to implicitly or explicitly blame entire populations of Muslims and Arabs.

The crashes that reduced the World Trade Center to rubble and the two terror-inducing plane crashes elsewhere have cleft our age into two. On the other side of this smoking chasm of blood and bitterness, lies another world. It can be a world in which all the mistakes of the past - global inequality, socio-economic exploitation, lack of international democracy, lack of national democracy and literacy in some nations, prejudice, hatred - all these mistakes are consolidated into a world of greater violence and suffering. Or we may, finally, learn to work towards a world, a very different world, where we will tackle not the consequences of senseless tragedies but the reasons for them. A world in which we will condemn not only a certain kind of violence, but all violence; a world in which we will love not only our humanity, but all humanity.

In order to make this choice we have to look deep into our own hearts before we tidy away the tea things and swap the channel in places like Copenhagen.

* * *

People who commit hate crimes against Americans with Middle Eastern backgrounds in the wake of the terrorist attacks will be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law", according to a top Justice Department official.

According to new federal hate crime statistics released recently:

* Hate crimes accounted for nearly 3,000 of the roughly 5.4 million victim-related crimes examined in a study which looked at cases reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by local police in more than a dozen states from 1997 to 1999.

* Among the racially motivated incidents, 60 per cent targeted Blacks, 30 per cent targeted Whites and the rest targeted Asians and American Indians. Forty-one per cent of the incidents involving religious bias targeted Jewish people.

* Violent crime was the most serious offence in 60 per cent of the hate crimes, typically involving intimidation or simple assault.

* More than half of the violent hate crime victims were 24 years old or younger. Among the offenders, 31 per cent of violent offenders and 46 per cent of property offenders were under age 18.

Source: Internet

* * *

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Copenhagen University, Denmark.)

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