Forever Cosmetic

Twelve months since those spectacularly horrifying images exploded onto our television sets? Fifty-two weeks since they imprinted themselves on our minds, our consciousness? Three-hundred and sixty-five days since the world changed forever? Since terrorism became the notion everybody and his second cousin twice removed has strong opinions about? Really, was all that yesterday or was it a year ago?

Of course, it has been a year. Which is time enough to think again about some of what we thought last September.what we thought last September. This column will make an attempt to do that, at least with one of the ideas we shared then.

Has the world in fact “changed forever?” Through the rest of 2001 and well into 2002, with echoes even today, so many conversations, so many articles, so many speeches featured variations on this phrase that I did not even try to keep count. Typical was what Liz, my good friend in Atlanta, wrote to me three days after the tragedy: “Our country will emerge … forever changed and scarred from this hateful, pointless act.” Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, commented in the online journal Alternet (Dec. 20): “The most common media assessment on the terrorist attacks was: Sept. 11 changed everything, forever. ”Yet even earlier than Dec. 20, doubts had been raised about the truth of such an assessment of Sept. 11; indeed, of the very value of seeing it that way. For example, on Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day in the U.S., a Vietnam veteran called Peter Mahoney wrote in Counterpunch: Most people would probably think of this date as the two-month anniversary of “the day that changed everything.” It is also Veterans Day. It used to be called Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” Funny how these pronouncements can seem so foolish over time.

And Princeton’s Falk himself had this for the next sentence in his Alternet article: “My assessment of the Bush administration’s foreign policy is best captured by the reverse sentiment: Sept. 11 has not changed anything except the cosmetics of diplomacy.”

Now I know nothing about diplomacy, cosmetics or not. But without agreeing that “these pronouncements can seem so foolish,” as Mahoney thinks they do, it seems to me that time brings perspective that transforms early impressions. (No profound insight there, I’ll admit). And, as always with a perspective, it’s worth considering.

Indeed, by no means did WWI end war—nor, for that matter, did its successor. In the same way, much of the world goes about its daily life in much the same way as it used to “before.” Sure, there have been incidents of racial profiling in the U.S.; sure, airport security measures are noticeably tighter; sure, there’s the vaunted war on terrorism that’s regularly primed with aggressive Bush-speak. But are these really the measures that tell us the world has changed dramatically? These relatively superficial things? At least after 1918, people did believe that great war would end all wars—a huge, profound, magnificent thing to believe; one that flew in the face of so much human history.

Stacked up against that, what’s an extra body search at Frankfurt airport, a stricter regimen to get an American visa?

Not that I didn’t believe, last September, that the world would change. Like so many, I looked forward to a world without terrorism—meaning, for me, a world where justice prevailed. For 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 here.

Take the massacre of 3,000 turbaned Indians in Delhi in 1984. The death toll alone makes it comparable to the WTC carnage. Not only that, I seriously doubt that the terror Indian Sikhs felt in those dreadful days was any less, any different, from what New Yorkers felt on and after Sept. 11. In fact, even the word “riots” is wrongly applied to Delhi, 1984: it was a massacre, that simple. As in NYC.

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

It gives me no satisfaction at all that I could say much the same for the killings of hundreds of ordinary Indians in Bombay in 1992-93, or in Gujarat this year, or in Kashmir since 1989, or in any number of the 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 those who led the cheers as those killings happened, who instigated it all, are considered patriots for doing so. Gujarat’s Narendra Modi is hailed as the new Sardar Patel, which comparison belittles that giant of our freedom struggle. Some of them rode those same riots straight to power. So the violence goes on, justice remains forgotten.

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 rationalization.

Certainly it’s not terrorism. Even though we lay frequent anguished claim to being victims of terrorism.

It seems to me that unless we in India apply our laws firmly and swiftly to all those 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.

Yes, this indifference to justice is what I had hoped would change after Sept. 11, and not just in India. 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 some of those very things that drove some very focused, if crazy, men to pilot 767s into the WTC and the Pentagon.

We thought they changed the world. The truth, a year later, may be that they changed only the cosmetics.




A computer scientist by training, Dilip D'Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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