Thursday, September 15, 2011

Time & Space After 9/11

Time markers have always helped mankind to refer to, or to make sense of events that are larger than words can adequately describe. Take for instance, the 430 BC Athenian plague, the 1348 Black Death pandemics in London, or the 62 AD earthquake of Pompeii, or the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I grew up hearing references to “Nabbe Sal”- the 1990 BS earthquake that devastated much of old Kathmandu and parts of Nepal, as well as “Sat Sal” or “Satra Sal” both synonyms for the momentous political upheavals of 2007 BS and 2017 BS, respectively.

But since those time markers came from outside of my own lived, temporal contexts or direct experience, they always appeared illusory, and removed from the indispensable content of my everyday life, leaving some gaping hole in my understanding of the significance of the actual event.

It was somewhat different with the upheavals of “Chhatis Sal” and “Chhayalish Sal”, 2036 and 2046 BS, or the March 12, 1988 Dasarath Stadium stampede, the consecutive international airplane disasters of 1992 in the Nepali airspace. I got to witness them during my own time, without a choice but with the limitations of an adolescent in absorbing and retaining the dimensions of these shattering events. Relevance and intimacy would make some markers more real and momentous, even those from childhood, for instance, 1969, the year I was born, but also the year America put man on the moon!

With the coming of age, there comes a time when you wonder how one day you suddenly become interested in a country or an event that hardly mattered to you not long ago. Hearing about the distant Iran-Iraq war on radio for so many years during the 1980s eventually made those countries and their problems so real for us. Besides, access to news and information, physical or mental maturity is a requisite to appreciating such historical markers.

Perhaps because I was fully mature to absorb it, no other date left as deep a scar in my mind as our day of infamy; June 1, 2001. Whether we like it or not, the palace massacre redefined many of us as Nepalis. It altered our sense of being or belonging, forever.

Three months later, 9/11 happened, another key pointer of our times. It appeared more extensive in its scope; time and space-wise, aided and amplified by our technologically networked lives. Yet, it is our own sense of space and time that we often resort to in processing such global events and in trying to make sense of their magnitude. As the twin towers disintegrated, the first thing that came to my mind was one Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq, a Muslim ruler, who invaded Simraun Gadh circa 1324, destroyed historic relics and burned holy books. One cannot understand the enormity of an event without any time/space association, and we all tried to find historical parallels, accurate or far-fetched. I also found myself recalling the 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking episode in Kathmandu by Islamist terrorists.

With my mind in Nepali space and history, I was sitting in an auditorium at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia watching live the airplanes hit the towers that fateful morning of September 11, 2001. You could not miss the happening that historians of journalism would later dub as a news event of the century. Having come of age, past 30, I was right in the middle of an event that would redefine my contemporaries into something called the 9/11 generation. There would be no running away from it, even in Nepal.

Contrary to my fear and despite the calamity that resulted in the death of thousands of civilian in what was described as the first direct major attack on the American homeland by foreign enemies, I saw no mass hysteria, out-and-out anxiety among average Americans, at least in that part of the Mid-West where I lived. Their sense of repose and calm surprised me, amazed me. Unlike in Nepal, where everybody has a strong opinion on anything and everything and one always seems to compete to outtalk the other, I found Americans unwilling to advance a point of view without knowing the facts first. Rather than start from dogma, trying to deduce that Islamic terrorists were behind the attacks, they seemed to be looking for specifics first, in their characteristic inductive reasoning. Were they taking their time in their space of reason?

Rather than the streets (like in the Middle East or South Asia), they were the TV channels and newspaper pages that were to turn into battlefields of words and ideas, leading the debate. Now there was a real-world journalism school for this student unfolding in those media to learn from. And what better time than during a tragedy such as this that tested the values of journalistic objectivity and balance.

Understandably, the media were soon filled with displays of patriotism and some anchors and commentators appeared outright jingoistic. Hearing the constant war-cry of the conservative media, with Rush Limbaugh or FOX channel as their crown jewels, at one point it appeared that the American media were no different from the media of any authoritarian country. What was remarkable was the steady reverberation of a range of views within the polarized extremes of mainstream media, between those beating the war-drum and those calling for genuine introspection about American policies and actions abroad.

The first stunning example of dissent in that context occurred right there at the J-School I attended. While star newscasters at national TV channels were displaying on air patriotic symbols like ribbons or flags on their lapels, the school-owned commercial KOMU-TV became the first in the country to ban such a practice, in respect for objectivity in news dissemination. The move even earned the school the wrath of the state legislators and their threats to cut off funding for the university.

"The other side" that the press often cites in its justification of balance, though muted throughout the months following the terrorist attacks, gradually became bigger and stronger. In one such dissenting voice, the country's celebrated intellectual Susan Sontag wrote a piece in The New Yorker magazine on September 24: "The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing."

Sontag questioned the label "cowards" used by the administration and commentators to describe the 9/11 terrorists. She continued: How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

My point is, even during the most difficult times, there was alternative space in America to voice one's views, and there were people practicing free speech without fear or favor, adding a little more context to the whole truth, to the extent possible. Of course, there is only so much you can do to influence government policies, as a journalist, or a public intellectual. We all know what happened in the following months and years: the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the futile search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, war In Iraq and then in Afghanistan, trillions of dollars spent to foot the bills for those battles, the killing of Osama bin Laden a few months back, etc.

And throughout these years, journalists were offered some "embedded" space by the army to witness the unfolding of history in battle theatres. With minders in the field, truth must have been compromised at times. But by and large the "space", however imperfect, remained intact for journalists. And some effects did spill over into other far-off territories. The fragility of time and space post-9/11 came closer to home in Nepal when over a dozen migrant citizens were beheaded in Iraq in 2004. So we had a share in the form of "2004".

We cannot be sure what is yet to come. But in this age of Internet propaganda, time is NOW and space is everywhere, beyond national borders. It may take decades more to understand the extent of vulnerability we inherited from 9/11 in the US or in Nepal.

Published in Republica, September 14, 2011