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|July 19, 2002||
The Great American Ignorance
In the middle of a hectic working day, with my phone ringing maddeningly, instant messengers talking tons, and me just halfway through a story that should have gone yesterday, what I needed, desperately, was a good, solid laugh.
I got it. When a colleague mailed in a bit of breaking news.
What he had to report bordered on the comic. The kind of thing that happens only in the movies.
Or in post-9/11 America.
It went like this: A well-known Malayalam actress and five other Indians boarded a Dallas-Chicago-New York City flight.
The actress, Samyuktha Varma, her father, mother, and younger sister were in America for the first time. Naturally, they were a bit excited about the whole thing -- make that very excited.
As the plane approached NYC, their excitement grew. They exchanged window seats, waved their hands to draw attention to landmarks outside the window, as people are wont to do when excited.
Some 20 minutes on, they were surrounded by the police, questioned about their religion, whether they have ever visited Afghanistan and Pakistan… for about five hours.
All this because a middle-aged lady co-passenger reported their 'suspicious behaviour' -- talking in a strange lingo, using 'sign language,' and switching seats.
A couple of months ago, I ran into another over-concerned, security-conscious American in New York City's Central Park. She accosted my colleague and me with her 'concerns' about our presence there because she decided we were 'Middle-Eastern.' In which case, of course, we had to be terrorists.
That is the tragedy of America today. People like the lady in the aircraft and her counterpart in Central Park now see only black and white. A shade of brown? Help, terrorist!
They call it being security-conscious. I call it the Great American Ignorance.
I come from a Third World country. A country where, besides the normal things you associate with any underdeveloped economy like poverty, unemployment, hunger deaths and whatnot, we have deaths from various deliberate, manmade causes -- to wit, bombs, improvised explosive devices, grenade-attacks, hijackings, the barrel of an AK-47.
I come from a country where in just one small valley, Kashmir, which many Americans weren't sure existed till recently, we have seen at the very least 35,000 people killed in a conflict that has explored the complete spectrum of violence, from militancy to terrorism. And at least some of it was sponsored by Pakistan, America's foremost ally in the war against terror, no less.
I come from a country where there is a metro called Mumbai, a crowded, dingy, dirty place, across which a gentleman named Dawood Ibrahim set off 13 bombs one after the other in the space of a few hours.
Please, we know what terrorism is. We have lived with it long enough.
But even our poor Third World brains realise that belonging to a certain faith, or to a certain country, is no reason for one to be a terrorist. That one doesn't become a terrorist by birth, but act.
That is because we realise there is a huge wide world outside India, a world populated by many people, some of them bad, but mostly, ordinary people who go through their lives without flying hijacked planes into tall buildings.
It's precisely this realisation that people like Samyuktha's flight-mate lacks -- and precisely the reason why American officials go about rounding up Muslims, and those who look/sound/appear Muslim, questioning them, jailing them, sending them home by the planeload.
To such 'concerned' citizens, America is the World. There is nothing outside except blackness… and, oh yeah, some place called the Middle-East, which is full of Muslims who are all terrorists.
Nice, very nice. Especially for a country that calls itself… what, the Land of Freedom? Freedom to do what? Point fingers at a person because his colour doesn't quite match yours?
'We will take every possible precaution to prevent another 9/11,' Americans and their cousins across the border tell me. Fine. But is pulling in some poor devil -- please do not tell me Kamal Haasan, Aamir Khan and Samyuktha Varma would have been detained if they weren't, well, off-colour -- for questioning the best you can do? Is this the ultimate in security you can provide?
I could be wrong here, but I think a terrorist needs to pass through an airport to board a flight. Makes sense to have, then, with all this concern and newfound security consciousness, tight security there, right?
But, no, it still sucks big time. Don't believe me? Ask the federal agencies. They ran a check across America recently, and found that airport security is inadequate. Los Angeles airport, where there was a shootout July 4, was found to be one of the worst.
Maybe that doesn't matter, really. Not when co-passengers can keep a tab on 'terrorists' and call in fighter jets.
In Third World countries we don't have that option, because scrambling planes cost money. So we tighten our airport security. We don't like the numerous baggage and body-checks we go through over there, but we would rather do that than panic and yell for the military if someone as much as sneezed.
And it has worked perfectly well for us. Much better, in any case, than the system America has in place.
Check this out: Since September 11, America has had to scramble jet fighters 400 times. Which is an average of more than once a day. And every one of them was a false alarm.
September 11 was a huge tragedy. Agreed. But terrorism wasn't born that day. All it did, that day, was penetrate the American mindset.
Result? A cacophony of 'wolf, wolf.' And the fact that, like blue-eyes, baseball and cheeseburger, an allergy to brown skin has become an all-American phenomenon.
In passing, and in case you think this is just a random crib, do think back to the analogy of the boy who cried wolf. Is it fair to say that if this kind of thing keeps up, if jet fighters keep scrambling for no reason at all, the sheer ennui of it will cause America's guard to collectively come down?
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