Over the weekend, Sona had a journalism conference near Grand Central, so I met her afterwards for dinner. And it was a lovely day, so we decided to go for a long walk, randomly ending up in Chinatown. And equally as random, we decided to walk to the World Trade Center PATH station, something we never do. And the only reason we did was because we didn’t want to stop in Hoboken (the other PATH line to Jersey City stops there for a good ten minutes).
Ever since I’ve been in New York, the area immediately surrounding the World Trade Center PATH stop has been fenced up with massive billboards and images of a projected futuristic Jetsons-like renovation planned. We were in a typical New York mood as we made our way to the PATH: happy it had been such a great day, chatty, but tired from all the walking. That changed pretty quickly. Behind us we heard a father attempting to explain to his two young children what the explosion had done, not just to the twin towers, but to many of the surrounding buildings, and what the renovations were going to look like. But the kids, being kids, just weren’t getting it. We crossed the street just as one of the kids asked why the explosion had taken place in the first place. And it’s a question that we will inevitably have to talk to Kavya about in a few years, and something we don’t fully understand ourselves.
I was nowhere near Ground Zero on September 11th and had no connection with New York. I thought the skyline was pretty, but had only seen it in movies, never in person. I was fast asleep in my bed in California after staying up the night before playing video games and generally being an unproductive college student. A few minutes after the first plane hit, I got a call from my girlfriend at the time, who was in Florida visiting her parents. I switched on my television and watched footage that has become stock footage now of the Twin Towers crumbling to nothing, but more terrifying was a very short video of someone hurling himself off the building. It’s an image stuck with me much more than the Hollywood-style surreal action sequence. People hurling themselves off a skyscraper in a desperate attempt to save themselves, or perhaps simply to avoid being burned alive.
In the days that followed, I saw media coverage showing a country united, but saw just how inaccurate this nationalism was when I heard reports from various newsgroups I was subscribed to reporting hate crimes against anyone perceived of as Middle Eastern and Muslim, including Latin Americans, and especially those who looked like Osama bin Laden (all of whom were Sikhs, a religion from India). I knew it was just a matter of time before a Sikh man was killed, and on September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot five times in the back in the first hate related killing associated with 9/11. Sikh organizations from all over the country went out of their way to wave the American flag, some wearing turbans made with the American flag just to prove their Americanness. It was frightening to think that my father, Pashaura Singh Dhillon, a well known Punjabi poet/singer, and also a turbanned Sikh could have been Balbir Sodhi. The image of Osama bin Laden infuriated me because of what this man had inflicted on all of the people killed on 9/11, but also on their families, and what he represented. September 11 affected me on many levels. As an American. As a Sikh. But mainly as a human being.
Sona, on the other hand, was at work on September 11 in midtown closing an issue with, of all things, Britney Spears at the VMAs on the cover. She even had to interview people in their grief stricken state about 9/11 on 9/11. Some of her friends lost loved ones who worked in the towers. Her family was frantically calling, angrily shouting at the security guards, and there was absolute panic in the building, with word of another terrorist strike. When she left work, she told me that Time Square was absolutely dead (if you’ve ever been to Time Square, you will realize just how eerie that is). I remember watching a fantastic documentary, Divided We Fall, with interviews from people of colour who spoke about their experiences on 9/11. There was an enormous dark cloud that engulfed lower Manhattan, with massive parts of planes, or building bits embedded in the ground. People were even paranoid that there would be bombs on the train. Sikh men, some were First Responders, were chased and attacked because people assumed they looked like Osama bin Laden. And ironically, none of the nineteen hijackers had beards or wore turbans, and 99% of men with beards and turbans in the United States have nothing to do with the Middle East, or Islam (not that that should make a difference).
So you would think that when I first heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I would have been elated, and celebrating in the streets like many people all over the country. But I had mixed emotions. I just couldn’t get behind the celebration and joy over a man’s death. Granted, it was a dangerous, clearly evil man with no regard to human life, Muslim or otherwise. But I don’t know of any philosophy or religious doctrine that can rationalize celebrating the death of another human being as a source of national pride and sense of achievement.
Of course, I understand the reasons that people are so jubilant. The death of Osama bin Laden is obviously a psychological “win” and brings some form of closure for the victims of 9/11 and their families. But I can’t get behind reputable news stations and the media circus that will inevitably ensue wanting to show a dead man’s mutilated and bashed in corpse on national television, or the subpoena of Osama bin Laden’s sister brain to perform DNA tests on.
It’s also chilling to think that in ten years, people are still as ignorant about Sikhs as they were ten years ago, and Islamophobia is alive and well in virtually every rung of society. That in our zeal to stop a potential terrorist attack in response to Osama bin Laden’s death, the same (if not elevated levels) environment of fear, paranoia, hatred, and xenophobia that took place under George W. Bush’s watch might happen under Obama’s. That the environment will again flourish where people will have to prove that they are real Americans by flying the flag high, wrapping themselves up in it, belting out “A Star Spangled Banner,” and talking over one another about just how awesome it is Osama bin Laden is dead. Is an evil man dead? Without a doubt. Is the world a better place without him? Certainly. Those two questions aren’t difficult to answer. The difficult question to answer is whether his death is a cause for celebration and time for rejoicing.