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Sunday, Dec 30, 2001

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Athens to Animal Farm


In times of stress, man tends to revert to forgotten dynamics of fear and hatred between ethnic communities and religion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New York after the attacks of September 11.

The attacks have made a deep impact on the nation's psyche.

SINCE I returned from a trip to the U.S., friends and family have been asking me if life there has changed after September 11. On the surface, New York looks the same. Yet, you feel that something has gone, perhaps forever. The change first became palpable at the airport. No amount of journey on crowded subways or buses in the city could have matched the crush, the tension and, yes, the stench of humanity at JFK, just before Thanksgiving weekend. A serpentine queue for check-in had spilled out in the street from the vast hall at five in the morning. Another long wait for security began after clearing this queue in a couple of hours. If you were an Asian, you were asked to step aside please and undergo a closer search yet again. All pleas about missing a vital connecting flight were stonewalled with a "Sorry, can't help you there".

What was going on? All over the airport, people were getting edgy, angry and disgusted. I looked around for an answer. All of us had asked various officials "how long". And been answered with wordless shrugs that said: "who knows?" Here was a country whose efficient and no-nonsense ways were often cited to shame those who ran airports and public insititutions in Third World countries. Now one read that certain ethnic groups had begun experiencing sudden mid-night knocks and arrests, questionings and expulsions in a country that has been synonymous with justice and democracy in the world. It made no sense that this melting pot of global talents, the great salad bowl of ethnic groups was falling into the sort of madness and paranoia that had gripped Europe half a century ago.

Several eminent columnists and government spokespersons were at pains to explain on TV that the tight security checks and patrolling were "for their own good". In times when human bombs and suicide bombers could be biding their time before taking countless innocent lives, one could not be too careful. Yes, they had a point there, you agreed. But the feral smells that enveloped the airports where thousands waited made you realise that human beings could begin to behave and smell alike in times of stress. The dividing line between Athens and Animal Farm is not too hard to erase.

What happened on September 11 in New York, has undoubtedly unleashed the forgotten animal dynamics of fear and loathing between people of different ethnic and religions backgrounds not just in the U.S., but the world over. Europe experienced it during the holocaust and then again more recently during the break down of the Soviet Union. We experienced it in 1947, at the time of Partition and have relieved it many times since then — in communal clashes from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu that have killed, maimed and alienated thousands. A trip to New York, once again makes you sharply aware of the fragile nature of human relations all over the world, even in places known as the cradles of democracy.

When terrorists were bleeding Kashmir, Egypt and Sri Lanka, the developed world thought and said that it was a Third World problem. With democracy and economic development, they thought they had tamed this wild beast. They said the perennial instability of political coalitions, the pressures of the Great Unwashed and bureaucratic corruption of the Third World were responsible for the communal conflagrations. It seems now, that they were not quite right. All societies, rich or poor, continue to have many seams: religious, economic and ethnic. And New York has shown that to consider them incapable of coming apart and take civilisational stability for granted, would be highly unwise.

A horrible smell still hangs over what has come to be called Ground Zero in New York where the majestic World Trade Center Towers once stood. Photographs of missing loved ones are pinned to the mesh that surrounds and bars the site. It is as horrible as the visuals of terror-stricken Palestinian and Afghan mothers herding their hysterical children to safety through the rubble-filled streets of their devastated cities. At Raleigh airport, several marines were checking in; perhaps on their way to Afghanistan. They looked young and vulnerable.They could have been our soldiers off to Kargil.

What right do the elders have to send the young to death in the name of patriotic duties after their faulty policies have messed up the world?Is there a way out between compulsive guilt and compulsive patriotism?

I guess at the moment there are no acceptable answers to these uncomfortable questions.

The author writes in Hindi and English and is a freelance journalist.

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