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October 8, 2001

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The Rediff Special/ Hari Sreenivasan

The silence of the confused

I wish it were just the buildings.

As horrible as it sounds, the deaths on September 11 are not the greatest casualties of this attack; the greater casualty is the tear in the entire social fabric of America. I grieve for the families of those who lost loved ones, but I am sadder for what is happening to this country. A veil has been lifted for most of us and what we sense is not so pretty.

The silence is deafening

The ugliness and shouts of people hating one another and retaliating with street level vigilantism isn't what I'm afraid of most any more. The racial tensions have always been bubbling and this event added oxygen to the cooling embers in otherwise ignorant hearts. What is more frightening is the silence of the confused.

This past weekend, I took a long-planned drive (part necessity, part therapy) from San Francisco -- through Nevada, to Idaho Falls, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and finally to Yellowstone National Park. For miles and hours behind the wheel, I found myself thinking of the larger tragedy and of individual experiences.

The silence of the confused that I speak of is the memory of an incident at the Flying J truck stop in Winnemucca, Nevada, on my way back Monday afternoon. On my way out of the restroom after washing my hands and face, I was confronted by a very large, shirtless man on his way into one of the showering areas in the truck stop. His verbal onslaught, as unruly, aggressive, pointed and racist as it was, was something I was prepared for and almost callous to. It was the reactions of the people around him that scared me more.

They weren't forming a lynch mob; they were just curiously approaching to witness this man vent his rage and frustration but, most important, they were silent. After what seemed an eternity of saying I was just using the restroom and wasn't intending to be offensive, another man told my aggressor the shower he was waiting for was ready. I'm thankful for that voice, but as I hurried out of the store, with all eyes trained on my movements, my hands, my pockets, I was in awe of the silence.

Everyone is dealing with their own combinations of rage, sadness, confusion, insecurity and grief in their own way. My fear was fuelled not necessarily by the idea that I would suffer physical harm, but that the humanity, the soul and the heart of the people standing by was absent.

Perhaps it's just a truck stopů just those people. I don't know. I still get calls every couple of days from friends all over the country who are just GETTING it. They call and say something in a solemn voice like, "The towers are gone" or "I can't believe this is happening" or, most often, "I never knew I could be as angry as I am today."

Insecurity?

Security within airports? Security within our borders? Security from our neighbours? Security on this earth? The questions far outnumber the solutions proposed by our loudest leaders. As we begin fighting this war against an undefined enemy with no geographic boundaries, or any ability to measure our adversary's defences, strengths or determination, even the people who at first wanted to "go nuclear" are wondering what good any vengeful act we commit will do. The more pressing question on the minds of the school kids on their way across Nevada on a desolate stretch of I-80 is whether this act of horror was a grand exclamation point or just an ellipse that will continue in their lives, trailing with car bombs in their high school parking lots and suicide attackers at the big state championship football games.

Do the people I was passing in their blue Chevy minivan outside Twin Falls care to pay for this new level of security in our country with their privacy? Do they understand the weight of the legislation and proposals by some leaders now asking to curtail certain civil liberties? Are they ready to grant the government a blank check for everything from increased wiretapping to legalised assassinations? Individual liberties and collective checks on absolute power have helped shape this country's core strengths. Is the resolve of American independence that defines the western plains now reduced to political rhetoric as we act in a reactionary fashion motivated by our fear?

Pride?

I saw flags flying in some amazing places on this trip. Cars plastered them inside and outside windshields, taped them to antennas, complimenting them with signs reading 'God Bless America' or 'And Our Flag Was Still There.' I saw overpasses on remote stretches near Truckee, California, with flags overhanging the freeway. Outside Carlin, Nevada, I saw a crisp new flag waving on a dilapidated trailer, standing in high grass that hadn't been clipped in months. I saw a flag flying atop a cherry picker outside Davis, California, parked in the orchards next to the freeway, for everyone to see. In this time where we hear about the heroic last minute efforts of a few brave hostages on the flight that crashed outside Pittsburgh, and the tales of the gallant emergency workers who ran into burning and crumbling buildings in the hope of saving even one person, knowing full well that their own life would be the cost, America has great reasons to wave its flags high.

I am torn at times on why I want to wave that same flag. Am I proud of these things, proud to stand tall and salute this great land that has given me such opportunity, the opportunity my parents and I came here for? Or is part of me interested in flying it out of fear, hoping that perhaps the sinewy stripes would lash out like snakes at would-be aggressors and the steel stars would make me bullet-proof and immune to the misplaced hatred floating in hallways, and alleys. Would it be a display of my pride or of my insecurity?

We are the world

In case we missed it on our local evening newscasts for the past decade, where a whole 60 to 90 seconds is dedicated to 'world news' every night because the 'team coverage' of the traffic jam took too much time, it's here now. There isn't a person in this country that isn't thinking in a slightly larger scope today then before September 11. Whether it is in their attempts to find Afghanistan on a map or the realisation that when we choose our friends in the Middle East, we also choose our enemies, the world became bigger.

As we gather more facts about these far off lands where mercenaries graduate magna cum laude from institutions which are only twice, sometimes once, removed from our own intelligence and counter intelligence agencies, people are beginning to question whether there existed any initial intelligence or counter intelligence in beginning these covert operations.

Those digging deeper than the evening newscasts are seeing the destitute conditions that aren't the result of Mother Nature, but of entire manmade systems at work. What is the answer? There isn't one under any current paradigm we operate in. How many people in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are ready to gain land, bread, housing, and education for every human being on earth at the cost of their winter ski cabin, at the cost of capitalism?

Give peace a chance?

The most trying struggle for me began inside Yellowstone National Park. Seeing some of the most majestic landscapes Mother Nature has created and this country protects gave me a sense of peace.

I now wonder at my core whether the Gandhian idea of non-violent struggle still could hold true in this day and time. The individual who single-handedly stopped a tank at Tienanmen Square in China succeeded because his presence appealed to the humanity of the tank driver inside. The sanctity of life made a connection.

One could also argue that, in the protests of the British Raj or on the streets of Montgomery Alabama, silent yet compassionate people in the ruling class were moved to action by seeing human determination and realising a similarity, a kinship, feeling an innate, almost universal right and wrong.

How can that exist today when we deal against people who have no meaning in their lives except for one action which they programme themselves into believing is a ticket into a better world? How can we fight against foes that do not see the smile of child as hope incarnate for a better future?

Hari Sreenivasan hosts CNET TV.com

EARLIER:
'I was brown, that's wall all that mattered'

ALSO SEE:
Terrorism in America: The complete coverage

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