DATE>09.14.2001
CHANNEL> Literary Review
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Columnist: Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar teaches English at Penn State University and is the author of Passport Photos (University of California Press and Penguin-India). You can write to the author at aik4@psu.edu.

Falling Buildings


"For journalists, we face the largest assignment of our careers," the writer said at the end of her article. "Americans will need not just the news but perspective, not just the images but understanding. They will need from us our very best."

These were fine, stirring words. But, I found that I wasn't doing too well in the perspective department. What did those words mean anyway?

The article I was reading was on the Poynter Institute website. I had come to it because a few hours after the planes had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Sree Sreenivasan of the South Asian Journalists Association sent out a memo on his listserv. The memo said that this website offered suggestions to reporters covering the story of the attack.

I confess I considered for a while about stringing together a sentence about the Statue of Liberty near the World Trade Center and my sudden awareness, at moments like these as I walked on the streets, that I was a foreigner. But, I gave up that attempt and began worrying wholeheartedly about the loved ones I hadn't heard from.

On the streets near my house, I saw people embracing each other or crying. I knew that it wasn't that they lacked perspective. They had a perspective -- perhaps that is why they were able to cry. And there I was -- aware that Americans needed from me "my very best" -- hunting for perspective.

An old friend from college, Sankarshan Thakur, now an editor at the Indian Express, sent an email. His whole note, starting with the words "THIS IS AN S.O.S.," was written in large, capital letters. When I saw those words, my first thought was "Oh no, he has a relative in New York City whom he cannot find...."

But, I quickly realized that all that was needed from me was a report. Sankarshan had even specified the length. 1800 words. Dryly, at the end of his note, he had added "By the way, hope you are safe."

My friend's note really made me think. What was I going to write? Now, it seemed, I really needed perspective.

I went back to the Poynter Institute website. This time I read an article that made it clear that more than catastrophic events, what needed to be stressed was courage and creativity. Catastrophes cannot be equated with humanity. "They may define news and history," the writer said, "but not a civilization."

Even though I didn't entirely get it, I read those words for the same reason one drank Horlicks in one's childhood. For strength.

The writer's wisdom was laid out in clean, muscular prose: "The things that truly define us take time: the emancipation of slaves, the achievement of rights, the creation of new technologies, the curing of disease, the building of communities. Not just Hiroshoma, but the Marshall Plan. Not just the AIDS epidemic, but Jonas Salk."

I think I finally understood what the first writer had meant by perspective. I still had a problem. The second writer wasn't telling me what the other half of the equation was. I tried to formulate this for myself. I only got the first half of the sentence: "Not just falling buildings, but..."

I tried to remember what had happened in the last few hours. My wife's brother, who works on Wall Street, had sent an email saying he was safe. We were very relieved. He is going to get married to his high-school sweetheart this December in Karachi. Then, I had found out that my friend Rakesh had sprinted away safely from the falling debris. I broke down and cried on getting his news. Other friends were reaching out with gestures of love and concern.

I went back to the writer's examples. And suddenly, a thought came to me. For every person in a given country, for example, Afghanistan, for every person who turns to terror, there are millions who go on with their lives, in the worst of conditions, without raising a finger to harm anyone else.

The above fact should be self-evident but it needs to be said here, in this country, recovering from what has been a terrible, devastating attack.

So, yes, as the writer advised me in his column on the website, I want to be upbeat. I, too, want to stress virtue, and I can only do it by emphasizing the humanity of entire nations who are now being charged with this crime.

As the talking heads on American television have begun bristling with threats of armed retaliation, it is necessary to say this over and over again. The Arab people are not just terrorists, but teachers. Not just terrorists, but patient mothers. Not just terrorists, but children wanting toys.

Or, to hell with cliches! They are not just terrorists, but a man worried about his second ulcer. Not just terrorists, but a woman wanting books. Not just terrorists, but a family terrified of terrorists who come in tanks.

I returned once again to the Poynter website and found an article written by an American journalist who had been working, on the morning of the attack, with a group of visiting Saudi journalists. One of the Saudis had told the writer, "This is not an attack against America. This is a crime against humanity."

By making that statement, the Saudi journalist had expressed his own humanity; and by reporting it, the American journalist had expressed his.

But, I beg to differ from both. Let me first say that the devastation that was visited on the people in New York City on Tuesday did, indeed, affect human beings very deeply all over the world. Ordinary individuals in different nations mourn this tragedy. I do too. But, my grief for this loss does not in any way contradict my understanding that this was indeed an attack on America. In fact, we need to be emphatic on one point. If Osama Bin Laden was indeed responsible for Tuesday's attacks, then America was attacked by its own creation.

Today, Secretary Colin Powell mentioned Bin Laden as a possible suspect. This is the first time a US administrator has publicly named him. Yesterday, Tony Blair has already declared his resolve to "dismantle the machinery of terror." The governments that both these men represent were active in arming and building the arsenal of the Afghani mujahideen ever since the 1970s. The attack on Tuesday, if indeed it was the handiwork of Osama Bin Laden, is a matter of US militarism and murderous intrigue coming home to roost.

I remember very clearly the 1996 photograph of the Afghan President Najibullah and his brother Shahpur Ahmadzai in Kabul. The two men dangled several feet above the ground, hung to death, while a Taliban militant faced the photographer. The former President was clad in sneakers and jeans. His face was half-turned away from the camera. Looking at the photograph, one could not see that the Taliban had cut Najibullah's genitals and stuffed them in his mouth.

I was reminded of this photograph when I read Suemas Milne in the Guardian today. Milne recalled that particular moment of Taliban ascendancy: "But by then Bin Laden had turned against his American sponsors, while US-sponsored Pakistani intelligence had spawned the grotesque Taliban now protecting him. To punish its wayward Afghan offspring, the US subsequently forced through a sanctions regime which has helped push 4 million to the brink of starvation, according to the latest UN figures, while Afghan refugees fan out across the world."

What happened in New York City is not just about falling buildings. It is also about nations that have been devastated by the machinations of the US.

The truth is that the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine is to a very large extent also a result of US policies in those regions.

How much of "understanding" and "perspective" will we need in order to be able to convey this to the US administration now once again preparing for war?

Amitava Kumar teaches English at Penn State University and is the author of
Passport Photos (University of California Press and Penguin-India). You can write to the author at aik4@psu.edu.
 

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