September 11, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

The More Things Change

My own brush with the aftermath of September 11. A tiny event compared to so much else that has happened, but nevertheless, it happened. Bear with me while I recount it. There's a reason I do.

What nailed me that day was my habit of writing down intriguing things I see in a little diary I carry in my shirt pocket. Thus the "Lady Shoppee" in the northern Maharashtra town of Dhule; the "Kiss and Park" sign in DC; the announcement of "PPUMIUM QUOLITY" beer at a restaurant in Calcutta. So when I saw the sign at the Marriott Hotel in Boston's Kendall Square, out came my diary. Wouldn't you scratch your head over the "International Interactive Textiles for the Warrior Conference"? What ARE interactive textiles, anyway?

I was in the US for the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine that I wrote about here a few weeks ago. Two of us took the Indian delegation, 18 kids from Mumbai, there; they joined over 150 other kids from several other countries.

The camp focuses on the kids and their activities. So one morning, we delegation leaders left them to it and spent the day in Boston. Some shopped, others took in the sights; I had arranged to see three friends. One, Steve, was going to meet me for lunch at the Marriott. Waiting in the lobby for him, I found that curious sign and whipped out my diary.

I didn't know it yet, but scribbling that name down was actually my second mistake that day. The first was in the rush to leave camp early that morning, when I forgot to take along a picture ID -- license, passport, something. Anything.

After lunch, Steve left. I was about to leave as well, to make my way to Quincy Market to meet someone else. Instead, a stocky man called Santoro accosted me, showing me a very official badge. With him was a big Cambridge policeman. I had been seen copying something down, said Santoro, and since this was a "government conference", that had got some people "concerned." Thus, he wanted to ask me a few questions.

Fine, I said, fire away.

Of course, my lack of a picture ID came to light very quickly indeed. Which must have greatly heightened those "concerns." For the next 45 minutes, there in the corridor of the Marriott, Santoro questioned me in minute detail. Where was I from? What airline had brought me to the USA and by what route? What was this camp in Maine? How had I travelled from Maine to Boston? What kind of bus was it? Who was the driver? What did I do for a living? Where was I meeting my colleagues to return to Maine?

He looked methodically through my bag. He read everything in my little diary -- scribbled conference name included. He read every word of every essay in a journal I had with me. He flipped through a sheaf of family photographs I had brought to show Steve. He gingerly examined my trusty Nikon FA, clearly afraid it would explode, or bite, or something.

I offered him the card Seeds of Peace had given us, with our co-ordinator's cellular number on it. I asked him to call Steve, who must still have been in the neighbourhood. Santoro said only that he would make those calls if he needed to. Meanwhile, more questions. Meanwhile, too, another agent came over with a slick pen-sized digital camera. Took two photographs of me (with and without glasses); then returned for two more (with and without glasses, this time up against a wall).

It was all very courteous. Santoro actually apologised several times for "detaining" me. "After all," he said, "these are hard times and we have to be extra careful." I could see that. I could see that he was just doing his job. I appreciated the courtesy. So I tried my best to keep calm and answer his questions. But I was beginning to wonder how I would get out of this. Inside, I was decidedly not calm.

Nor did I feel encouraged when, about half an hour into our chat, Santoro said: "Legally, I cannot let you go." Because I had nothing to prove who I was.

In the end, they did let me go. But not before Santoro told me I had better carry a photo ID everywhere I went. What's more, he said, "please leave this hotel immediately." That last instruction puzzled. My mistake to forget my ID, yes, but really, what was my crime? That I wrote down the title of a conference?

It took most of the day for the tension to drain away. And I thought back to when I lived in the US, through the 1980s. I don't believe something like this would have happened in those years. Certainly those 45 minutes in Cambridge amounted to a vanishingly minor consequence of September 11th. Still, as I wound down I ruminated about the way some things used to be, the way some have changed.

Which is about what we all thought a year ago, as we watched those horrifying images explode onto our television sets: that the world had changed forever.

So sure, there have been incidents of racial profiling in the USA; sure, airport security measures are noticeably tighter; sure, there's the vaunted war on terrorism, regularly primed with aggressive Bush-speak and arrogant Bush-policy. And sure, there's the time an Indian writer was questioned minutely in a Boston hotel because he was intrigued by a name.

But are these really the measures that tell us the world has changed so much? Even a war: haven't we fought those in the past? No, I suspect that, despite September 11th, much of the world goes about its daily life in much the same way as it did "before."

Not that I didn't believe that the world would change. Like so many after September 11th, I looked forward to a world without terrorism. For me, that meant a world where, driven by the horror of those attacks, justice would come to rule. For just one example, I hoped we in India would find new resolve to punish the guilty, whoever they are, for their roles in the riots we regularly suffer.

Take the massacre of 3,000 turbaned Indians in Delhi in 1984. That death toll alone made it comparable to the WTC carnage. Not only that, I doubt that the terror Indian Sikhs felt in those horrible days was any less, any different, from what New Yorkers felt on and after September 11. It was a massacre, simple. As in NYC.

Yet India has failed for 18 years to punish anybody for that crime. Not only that, we are not even willing to recognise it as an act of terror.

And it gives me no satisfaction at all that I could say much the same for other killings of thousands of ordinary Indians: in Bombay in 1992-93, in Kashmir since 1989, in Gujarat this year, in any number of other bloody spots that blot our independent history. Nobody of any significance has been punished for any of those crimes either. In fact, some of them used their roles in those riots to ride straight to power. Others who led cheers as these terrors unfolded are considered patriots for doing so. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi is hailed as the new Sardar Patel, which comparison shames a giant of our freedom struggle.

Instead of punishing killers, we have persuaded ourselves that Indians can slaughter other Indians and that's OK. That it amounts to defending a religion, or a justified "retaliation", or some other perverted rationalisation. Even though we lay frequent and anguished claim to being victims of terrorism, these crimes committed by Indians apparently don't qualify.

It seems to me that unless we apply our laws firmly and swiftly to all who break them, nobody in the world will take our complaints about terrorism seriously. Which is about what is happening. But it goes deeper. It also seems to me that as long as we don't want to bring our homegrown criminals to justice, we will never be able to fight off even what we commonly call terrorism: the outrages that we see as being fueled from across our border. For there is a definite and powerful connection between the two.

It is this indifference to justice that I had hoped would change after September 11, and not just in India. I hoped much the same would happen in Pakistan, in the USA and elsewhere. Because I thought we might understand the consequences of justice denied, of putting criminals in powerful positions, of religion perverted. After all, there's a good argument to be made that it was one or more of those very things that drove some focused, if crazy, men to pilot Boeing 767s into the WTC and the Pentagon.

Did that horror change the world? Or did it change only the cosmetics? For me, my Marriott experience, even if it left my nerves in tatters, offered an answer.

America's war on terror

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