Four years ago today was the formative event for an era. Four years is still too close to the present to know how long that era will last and where it will take us, but there is no doubt that we are still there. Even before a war in Iraq was instigated, and before that, a war in Afghanistan, it was plain that there was going to be war. Like it or not, humanity has yet to arrive at a place where conflict can be addressed in what we vainly refer to as a "civilized" manner. Civilized debate is what we do when there is little to be lost, but when there is a lot at stake, war is what we do to protect that egg.
Hurricane Katrina and last December's tsunami remind us that no matter what we do, human beings will always be subject to even greater punishments than war itself. In the same way that wars kill non-combatants, those events took out populations doing nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a way, we all are innocent bystanders, including those "doing their duty" as public servants such as fire fighters, or policemen, or even - yes - soldiers. Even the suicide killer, blackmailed or coerced into his diabolical act, is as blinded by a crippled world view as any conscript. We will always be mystified by what tortured thinking a group of people would deliberately fly airplanes into buildings. The tragedy will always remain that their minds were too small to envision alternatives.
Abbas Raza at Three Quarks publishes an email to his family at the time of the disaster which eloquently articulates part of the alternative. I reprint it here for today's remembrance. Blogging will resume tomorrow.
As time elapses, I am more clearly able to identify and articulate what it is that has been making me so sad about this attack. It is this: some cities do not belong to any particular country but are treasures for all people; cosmopolitan and international by nature, they are the repositories of our shared world culture and artistic production, testaments to what is common and binding among diverse peoples, and sources of creative energy. They come to stand for our notions of community and brotherhood. New York has been by far the most magnificent of these world treasures, and it still is today. Here, on every block you will meet people from forty different countries. Here you can speak Urdu with the cab drivers, and Korean at the grocery store. Here, bhangra rhythms and classical sitar mix with calypso and Finnish ambient chants. Here is where mosques and synagogues are separated by no green-lines. Here is where Rodney King's wish has mostly come true: we do get along. This city is the least provincial; no nationalism flourishes here. It is the most potent fountainhead of intellectual and artistic endeavor. What this mindless attack has done is desecrate and damage the ideals of international community that this city not only symbolizes, but instantiates as fact and lovely example. And it is this desecration which is so devastatingly heart-breaking.
I recall two things: one, the pleasure and awe with which my mother took in the incomparably stunning view from the 110th floor observation deck of the World Trade Center on a visit from Pakistan in 1974. And two, her reading in Urdu, the words of welcome inscribed in the lobby of that building in over one hundred languages, to all people of the world. Alas, no one shall ever do either again.
[This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Ehteshamullah Raja who didn't make it out of his business meeting at the World Trade Center that day.]