Yes to caution no to fear


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Category: International Date: 30 Aug 04


"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free," wrote the poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 in her ode to the Statue of Liberty whose triumphant completion she sadly never lived to see. I may only be a tourist, and not one of the weeping, grateful immigrants washed up on these teeming American shores but as I looked up at Lady Liberty's classical Grecian face, I was tired all right, and yearned for freedom from the city's claws which I felt as grim officials went through bags of tourists wanting to visit this symbol of freedom.


It could be the heat-the sense of claustrophobic airlessness triggered by a profusion of concrete, the wind wheezing between the high rises, or the fact that New York has been horribly bruised-I didn't realise how badly until I actually stood on the site of ground zero.


I should have paid more attention to the signals of ongoing trauma, the anxiety, the feeling of menace.


The sense of foreboding starts at airports where every second person is searched brusquely (especially if they are dark-skinned and have a name the young officers can't pronounce), closely scrutinised, made to miss their flights, interrogated like potential criminals.


To be fair, even a prominent white American politician has been a victim of "a terrorist list" of names-practically prevented from getting on his flight.


Then there are the flashing signs on the subway that ask you to report any suspicious activity to officials, reminding you again that America is a target for terrorist activities.


The city is also swelling with the influx of anti-war protesters -thousands of ordinary people pouring, driving and flying in from around America, scrimping for fares and hotels, all to demonstrate their disapproval of the senseless war, post-9/11, embarked upon George Bush and his toothy pooch-Tony Blair.


These American people demonstrating at the Republican National Convention are angered that they were deliberately misled by the fiction of weapons of mass destruction, that their own American sons and brothers have been sacrificed, and all that random blood letting (thousands of Iraqis dead) was about as effective as a fly swatter. The terrorist monster is still there.


The palpable generalised anxiety here is understandable. And so was the initial support for Bush's "war on terror".


I felt it while peering through the steel fence at the rubble on which once two of the world's tallest buildings (and a cluster of smaller ones) stood. Eight months to clear it away-to account for the nearly 3,000 dead. The violence, the scale of the drama hits you forcefully as you have to crane your neck to see the tops of the surrounding buildings on Wall Street reflecting a hard, glittering beauty way up there in the sunlight, casting miles of shade here on the ground.


I remember one particular image from the day that rocked the Western world. That of a couple who jumped, holding hands, from one of the buildings set ablaze by a crashed plane, hurtling through the air.


Oddly although the video footage of that horror couldn't have been more than two seconds long, it lingers in the mind like a slow-floating slow motion film that never ends. The horror of the choice that couple made.


All along the site there are billboards with photographs showing us the buildings as they were, how they were destroyed, the names of every person who died from that attack, the merciless dice of chance that put people on the terrorist planes-they took the early flight, or because they missed the previous night's flight-heartbreakingly simple human situations. On one billboard it is written that this large hole will soon be the site of a memorial fit for the ordinary people who woke up that day and didn't expect to die-not like that. On another, drawings of a spectacular building to replace the towers. The bravado, the courage of America-coming right back at you-bigger and better.


The cynical amongst us will say, "what about Rwanda, and Bosnia and Iraq-hundreds of thousands of people died there. What about America's acts of invasion and violence on vulnerable countries?"


Yes, but one death doesn't cancel out another.


And so standing there, looking upon the rubble of ground zero, I stumbled upon the real tragedy of this country. Each side-Bush and the terrorists-believes it has the moral authority: God is on its side. It's not dissimilar, sadly, to conflicts that have no end. I remember once asking a group of Jewish people gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the first Kibbutz in Jerusalem of how, they of all people, having known what it's like to be persecuted, knowing the horror of the Holocaust, could fire so mercilessly and with absolute loathing at the Palestinians-deny them a homeland? (The choking anxiety of that city where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in perpetual disquiet is not dissimilar to what I feel, now, in New York).


An old woman answered me "Well, you see most of us here lost entire generations of families in the Holocaust.  The Palestinians are just another group of people shooting at us." We have to defend ourselves from them.


Defence in Israel takes the form of Israeli soldiers standing on mosques pointing guns at stone-throwing boys.


Defence in America means bombing other countries.


Defence in Palestine means human bombs.


Defence in Iraq and Afghanistan means human bombs.


Everybody is defending themselves.


Everybody has God on their side.


Meanwhile innocent people, Muslims in Iraq, commuters in New York, are wondering when the next calamity will strike.


The lines are drawn -indelibly. I remember Gandhi again- "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. "


But that's not stopping the world.


And every story has its redemption. Mine came from watching an open-air film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, in Central Park, amongst the deep green rustle of trees and a half moon, when the lovely heartbroken Audrey Hepburn flings away everything that has the potential to hurt her-her pet cat, the man she's in love with, her native New York-and prepares to escape to South America.


He tells her then, this man who loves her, that she's too chicken to take chances, but in the end it is that trust in people, in your loves-that's the only thing that makes living worthwhile.


In our time, ordinary people like you and me, not caught up in the hate of conflicts, have to struggle every day to remember that - to live with caution but without fear.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur