It is a month since the macabre dance of death in New York and Washington and we are now in the midst of a war, but I am not sure that we understand what this is all about. People around the world are uncomfortable and insistently ask whom is America fighting? Americans are also confused. They want to know who are their enemies and why do they hate us? And hate so much that that a few young men defied the instinct to live and died for it. The trouble is that America is at war against people it doesn't know, and having gone off to war, it can't very well return without having won it.
President Bush says that it is a war against freedom. He says that democracy and the American way of life is under attack. In the present atmosphere of grief and anger this is easy for Americans to accept. But surely
it doesn't sound right? If it were true then the terrorists would have targeted the Statue of Liberty? Instead they targeted the Pentagon and the World Trade Center--symbols, not of liberty, but of American military and financial might.
As a citizen of India, a country that has eagerly embraced these same liberal, democratic ideals for a half century, I can say unhesitatingly that people overseas admire America for its open, free society. Nor are the American people the objects of hostility. The world admires and loves the incredible achievements of America's scientists, artists, writers, and filmmakers. Last month people around the world were also moved by the courage of New York's firemen and rescue workers.
Most Americans do not know that for over a decade we in India have been victims of Taliban trained terrorism that has taken hundreds of innocent lives. Two years ago Osama bin Laden announced from his
hideout in the mountains deserts of Afghanistan, "India and America are my biggest enemies and all mujahideen groups in Pakistan should come together to target them." Since then I have wondered why he singled out India and America as his targets.
It is also tragic irony that faceless terrorists in Kashmir had set September 11—-the same dreadful day--as the deadline for what women could wear. Tailors in the valley had been busy making burqas for weeks. But an innocent 15-year-old girl, whose tailor failed to meet the deadline, found acid sprayed on her face as she was rushing home from school. She lost an eye and her pretty face was disfigured for life.
It is tempting to believe that India and America the prime targets of Osama and the Taliban because they are open, pluralistic, and liberal societies. Both have to constantly appease minorities and they present a constant challenge to fundamentalists, who are more comfortable in monolithic states with one religion, one language, and one mind. (Indeed, both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists have this problem in India.)
Yet, I believe, it is wrong to blame freedom, democracy and the open society for the September 11 suicide attacks on America.
Powerful and large nations have always been envied. They are symbols of arrogance, distrust, and fear. When the powerful get into trouble there is an understandable feeling of glee—an expression of “well,
they deserved it”. For example, Mexicans express this envious feeling towards their powerful neighbor to the north: “Too close to America and too far from God”. But it is difficult to imagine that such envious feelings were the recent events. There must be another reason.
It is easy to see this as a clash of civilizations. Islamic people are angry over America's consistent support to Israel in the Palestine dispute. They are upset that half a million Iraqi children have died as a result of American economic sanctions. They are consumed by the irony that Taliban and Osama bin Laden are America's creation from the forgotten days of the Cold War. Islam also has an old tradition of jihad against infidels, but the fact is that the average person in Islam is moderate, and not very different from average human beings. They do not hate America enough to condone the terrible tragedy of September 11, and American leaders have rightly pointed out this is not a war against Islam.
I could be wrong, and many Americans may find this unpalatable, but I think one has to look to the American government's record during the Cold War to explain the present situation. One has to remember the millions who were killed in Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia; the thousands who died in Lebanon in 1982 and the hundreds of thousands during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq; the countless millions who were victims of American government supported dictators in Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It is this disregard for non-American lives that might begin to explain why America is so hated around the world.
The present administration is in a difficult situation. The world approves the legitimate hunt for Osama bin Laden and applauds the will to destroy terrorist networks. But the risk to America is that wars have their own logic and innocent lives are inevitably lost. Having once contributed to Afganistan's tragedy by creating the Taliban, America does not want to be remembered once again for creating enormous human suffering among innocent people. That would be counter-productive, and only reinforce the antipathy that brought about the present situation.