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No Time for Coffee in Copenhagen

by Tabish Khair

 

There are moments that cleave Time into two. Everything that happens afterwards happens in a different world. World War II and the Holocaust was one such moment for Europe. The Vietnam War was another for America and Vietnam. The suicide-hijack-crashing of four passenger planes and the destruction of the World Trade Centre on the morning of 11 September is such a moment for the entire world.

A world we know has come to an end. We stand poised on the margins of two new worlds now, one of heightened hatred and violence and one of serious peace and equality. It is a choice we have to make today. I wonít write about the 5,000 lives lost in a senseless and criminal act of violence. Such human loss escapes the limits of language and representation. One can only stand silent in front of the monuments of sorrow that tens of thousands ñ relatives, friends, colleagues ñ will carry in their hearts for the rest of their lives. It is a sorrow the rest of us can only share in silence. I cannot write about silence. And I should not for, in Copenhagen, I have been deluged with sound: the opinions of ordinary people, the film-like coverage of the tragedy by CNN, the voices of commentators and politicians. Much of this sound had a certain tone to it and that tone set me wondering. Is there much of a difference between the terrorists who struck back at a group of politicians by targeting tens of thousands of innocent people and those voices that seem to be using the cruel act of a handful of presumed Islamic terrorists to tarnish and blame entire populations of Muslims and Arabs? Donít both the acts demonstrate the same type of abstract hatred and prejudice? But the questions never end. On the margins of time, in the split space between worlds, one is always deluged with questions. For example, the first Danish person who brought me news of the tragedy ñ a person I respect in many ways ñ said that he is against violence of any kind and added that he would
understand it if Americans decided to hit back.

Why is it that we always justify our own violence, while the violence of the enemy is sheer sacrilege? Isnít this where it all begins? Isnít that why there were shocking pictures of embittered Palestinian youth celebrating the tragedy in the occupied areas: youth who have become so used to the idea of missiles being launched at their own buildings by Israeli security forces and the notion of reciprocal violence that they could not feel the inhumanity of their inane celebration?

But, then, is this what we can write about: this spiral of violence and inhumanity? Is this immense
tragedy going to remain at such a general level of discourse? The answer seems to be ëyesí if various media discussions in the West are to be believed. But it has to be ënoí if we are to salvage some sense from the wanton destruction, if we are to do the necessary honour to the needless deaths of those thousands of innocent people.

It is easy for us to sit here in our cosy sitting rooms in Copenhagen, holding a cup of coffee, munching
a biscuit, watching the tragedy unfold almost as fluently as a film on the idiot box, and speak in general and ineffectual terms. What we are doing is celebrating our own humanity, and all human beings ñ
even terrorists ñ are convinced of their own superior humanity. Many of the most inhuman acts known to
humanity have been the consequence of such a conviction. We need to go beyond it. We owe it to the
victims of the tragedy to go beyond it.

The second person who called me with news of the tragedy was my father: a semi-retired, devout Muslim doctor who has lived most of his life in a small town in a backward part of India. He was shocked by the news. How could anyone do this, he said again and again. The word he used was ëanyoneí. I went back to the TV and, in spite of the fact that no one knew anything about the identities of the terrorists, I did not hear too many people say ëanyoneí. I heard ëMuslimí, ëIslamicí, ëMiddle Easterní, ëArabí. These were people who had already decided to exclude entire populations from the circumference of their definitions of humanity. My fatherís ëanyoneí, which pointed an easy finger at no one, had been reduced by many of these contributors to ëArabí or ëMuslimí, even to the very type of an Arab or Muslim. I could feel the non-conformist ëMuslimí in me cringe every time I heard the expert discussions (with some honourable exceptions, such as Anders Jerichow in Denmark). I could feel my father, his voice heavy with sorrow for a people he has never known, I could feel him being put in the dock.

It is so comfortable, this celebration of our own humanity. All it requires is tea or coffee, a candle-lit room, some cake or biscuit and live coverage of a tragedy at some distance from us. It can be so inhuman, this celebration of our own humanity. But what about violence? Way back in the late 17th century, Thomas Burnet, the English divine, wrote about Apocalypse, or rather the tendency in the established Roman Catholic church to postpone, persecute or reason away those cries of ëapocalypse nowí, those cries of sweeping violence that reverberate through the Bible. But while an apocalypse followed by a millennium of Christís rule is what the Bible had prophesied, the Roman Catholic church ñ which ought to have welcomed the prospect of the Second Coming and a truly Christian millennium from a theological perspective ñ took a dim view of promises of the dawn of the millennium. It regularly countered or hunted down the self-appointed prophets of apocalyptic violence. Why? This is what the Reverend Burnet had to say: ìThe Church of Rome hath been in prosperity and greatness, and the commanding church in Christendom, for so long or longer, and hath ruled the nations with a rod of ironÖ And the Millennium being properly a reward and triumph for those who have come out of persecution, such as have lived always in pomp and prosperity can pretend to no share in it, or benefit by it. This has made the Church of Rome have always an evil eye upon this doctrine, because it seemed to have an evil eye upon her.î Violence, in other words, is not a free choice. It has never been a free choice. It is predicated upon some individuals by circumstances. These individuals are usually those who feel that an injustice has been done to them and theirs, those who labour under an overpowering feeling of deprivation. However senseless it might be ñ and the perpetrators of violence against the innocent should always be tracked down and brought to justice as criminals, neither more nor less ñ however dastardly an act of violence might be, behind it lies the rubble of shattered hopes, of real and imagined injustices, of human desperation and, consequently, inhuman hatred.

Let us not take refuge in the easy excuse that we, the angels that we are, we are against violence. For all of us, given certain circumstances, are capable of violence or sympathy with violence. Let us wipe that smug smile off our faces. Let us learn to see the rubble of other buildings behind the rubble of the World Trade Centre. While a thousand candles have been lit in Copenhagen for those who died such a shocking death in New York, let us also light a candle or two for the approx. 10,000 or more starving to death in Afghanistan every month, the approx. 5,000 children who die because of lack of medicines in Iraq every week. Let us not keep our tears only for those who are like us. Let us not traffic in the worth of human lives. No, general and large descriptions like ëviolenceí or ëinhumanityí do not help if we stay confined to that general level. Neither does the kind of cry for vengeance that one heard in the voice of the
American who wanted the Middle East levelled under asphalt. It is true that we have to take a stand against violence. Not just violence of one kind, we have to take a stand against all kinds of violence, the violence of terrorists as well as the violence of state agencies, physical violence that leads to the death of innocent bystanders as well as economic violence that leads to the starvation of millions in a world that has enough to go around. More than enough.

It is time we in the West think a bit before we bite into the cake of our affluence and drink the coffee of our civilised condemnation. If general sentiments will not do, what, then, about the specific lessons that we can draw from the unimaginable tragedy? Do these lessons relate to heightened security or the bombing to rubble of some other country, as has been suggested by some? Does this outrage mean that the USA actually needs a missile shield, for example? One of the things that this criminal outrage has demonstrated is the final ineffectiveness of any kind of physical or military shield. The only shield that can be effective is the shield of a more equal and just world. And for the world to be made equal and just, it not only needs some of the resources of the affluent, it also has to be made democratic. One hesitates to point this out in circumstances as sorrowful as these, but the US has made itself into
the target of extremist groups largely because it has tried to go solo or exert undue influence in certain international quarters. The great internal democracy of the US seldom gets translated into international democracy. Had certain decisions been taken through the channels of the United Nations (not a military alliance of the privileged, like the NATO), the US would have been only one nation among many. The burden, the ëblameí and the risks would have been shared. There are advantages to democracy at the international level, but it has to be true democracy. As in all democracies, this means that sometimes some members would have to accept unfavourable decisions taken by the majority: what is important is to respect the spirit of democracy and the process of law. And the final lesson is that of the dangers of abstract hatred and prejudice. The terrorists who caused the horrible tragedies in Washington and New York had made themselves blind to the fact that people have names and faces. The act of one person or a group cannot be blamed in a generalised way on an entire people or country. And this is a lesson that we should remember every time someone uses the dastardly act of a handful of presumed Islamic terrorists to implicitly or explicitly blame entire populations of Muslims and Arabs. For this has too often been the case in the West, as the attacks on ëArabsí in New York show.

The crashes that reduced the World Trade Centre to rubble and the two terror-inducing plane crashes elsewhere have cleft our age into two. On the other side of this smoking chasm of blood and bitterness, lies another world. It can be a world in which all the mistakes of the past: global inequality, socio-economic exploitation, lack of international democracy, lack of national democracy and literacy in some nations, prejudice, hatred; all these mistakes are consolidated into a world of greater violence and suffering. Or we may, finally, learn to work towards a world, a very different world, where we will tackle not the consequences of senseless tragedies but the reasons for them. A world in which we will condemn not only a certain kind of violence, but all violence; a world in which we will love not only our humanity, but all humanity. It is a choice that our politicians, editors and commentators will not make for us in the rooms of conference halls or the pages of newspapers. It is a choice we have to make ourselves. And in order to do so we have to look deep into our own hearts before we tidy away the tea dishes and swap the channel in places like Copenhagen.


 
Revised: October 17, 2001.

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