Dear Friends and Loved Ones,
This was intended to be a wrap up of views and experiences during --- and a
discussion of my disappointment with --- the World Conference Against Racism
in Durban, South Africa. I went to Durban with the International Centre for
Ethnic Studies and also reported on the conference for the Voice of America. I
returned to Sri Lanka just hours before the attacks in New York and
I begin this message in Sri Lanka's nightly blackout, three hour cuts due to a
drought that starves the island's hydropower. I am sweating on the keys a
little; the mosquitos annoy me; the flame of the candle feels hot on one
cheek. And I am feeling worse than I've felt in years.
Like so many of you, I cannot describe the sensation of watching the second
767 strike the World Trade Center, of seeing a structure that seemed as
permanent as the earth itself collapse into oblivion. The feeling that floats
to the top must be despair. Living myself in a world of terror and reprisal
(though we are far from the radar screens of the world), I also feel despair
at the surge of bloodlust on the networks and the calls for vengeance from
people, politicians, and the media.
Recent attacks on the US have been called evil acts of madmen. Oklahoma City,
the Embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, all seen as acts of irrational evil.
Evil they are. Nothing else can describe such brutal massacres, such wanton
destruction. They are not, however, acts of madmen. None of them. The danger
of such rhetoric should not be underestimated.
In my few years in Sri Lanka, I have seen dozens of brutal terrorist attacks,
the most shocking and brazen the recent destruction of 12 civilian and
military aircraft on the tarmac at the international airport. I have walked
among the dead and reported the carnage. The evil of terrorism touches
countries worldwide. War and insurgency have killed over 140000 Sri Lankans in
the last 18 years and left a million displaced. The population of the island
is only 18 million. Most terrorist attacks here strike the cities and kill
innocent civilians. The government often retaliates with military operations
and air strikes.
In this setting, the rebels are the "terrorists" and government retaliation is
justified and celebrated by much of the general public in government held
areas. Such attacks are supported by the international community as the
defence of a sovereign nation in a state of war.
But reprisals can never stop the terrorist attacks. Every time a military
operation claims an innocent son or daughter or parent or sibling, another
terrorist --- or freedom fighter --- is born. The cycle is perpetual. Security
can only be flawed; retaliation, however effective, can only contribute to
Sri Lanka is a gauntlet of military and police checkpoints. Vehicles are
inspected going into shopping malls. You have to reach the airport 3 hours in
advance and pass through multiple checks and searches, multiple x-rays, and at
least one hand search of all baggage. The bombings continue. The airport
remained vulnerable. Security is omnipresent and it is naturally
discriminatory, often profiling people of the same ethnic community as the
rebels. Checkpoints and searches do not make you feel safe. Because the
underlying causes of the violence are not fully addressed, the attacks
Undoubtedly, the attacks on New York and Washington can be attributed to
sloppy security at many airports and twin failures by American intelligence
and by American defence forces. Security must be tightened and the citizens
will have to accept the restrictions for their own safety.
But in America, too, increased security cannot stop terror attacks. A single
individual willing to die for a cause is virtually unstoppable. The fabric
that holds diverse societies together is an uncompromising defence of
individual rights and civil liberties. Security arrangements can prove
dangerous if they target or harm specific segments of a population, thus
driving people to extremism. Retaliation, unless surgically precise, will
always create a mushroom affect---new men and women willing to die if their
loved ones are slaughtered. We see it now in America: Thousands would die to
exact vengeance on those responsible for Tuesday's attacks.
But we are doomed to an ongoing cycle of terror unless the struggle Americans
are willing to die for is one for justice --- not revenge.
Fighting evil can only succeed if the approach to it is sophisticated and
profound. It must be rooted in the most difficult strictures of the scriptures
of the major religions and the deepest springs of the human heart. It must be
rooted in forgiveness. Force must be tempered by understanding; punitive
action complemented by positive action.
Around the roots of many terrorist organizations there often lies a thick
layer of legitimate grievances from which violence drew its nutrients. This is
true of the IRA, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the PLO, the Kosovar Liberation Army,
and many others. South Africa's ANC spent generations as a "terrorist"
organization. Many vicious forces in world were equipped by major powers,
including the United States (think of the Taliban itself and the Contras).
In Hollywood, attacks like those in New York and Washington are the designs of
madmen bent on wealth and/or power. They are thwarted by mythic heros in the
form of Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenagger. The movie stars didn't appear
on Tuesday to save the day. Similarly, there were no madmen. Acts of war like
these are rooted in strategy; the evil of real life terrorism is based on
concrete beliefs and serious efforts to advance those beliefs, often through
To fight these forces --- who also believe they are fighting for justice ---
countries must answer questions of who and how. They must also look beyond to
questions of why. The U.S. needs to ask and seriously try to answer these
difficult questions: Why do these people hate us enough to do such horrible
things? What will the cost of our retaliation be and how can it be just and
accurate? The suspects in these cases are not after mere wealth and power.
While retribution is necessary, the cost of that retribution must be
estimated. Nations can easily slip into an endless spiral of carnage like that
engulfing Israel and Palestine, like Sri Lanka, like so many devastated places
I despair for the victims in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, for
their families, and I dread learning of the friends I too must have lost
yesterday. I send my wishes to the rescue workers and hope the preservation of
life remains on the top of everyone's mind. I despair for a world in which
understanding and empathy are victims of political and economic convenience
and for leaders around the world who do not --- perhaps cannot --- realize the
possible results of their actions.
I just returned from an international forum from which the US withdrew.
America cannot remain separate from the global community; it must realize that
in order to have global support---against terrorism and for many other global
concerns---it must at least participate in global processes. It must openly
defend its beliefs and interests and attempt to build consensus for its
positions. Its positions must be debated inside and outside of the country. It
must empathize and attempt to understand the concerns and beliefs of other
states and other groups of people. The withdrawal from Kyoto, plans for
missile defence, refusing to sign biological weapons and land mine agreements,
rejecting an international criminal court, all of these cannot be seen as
disconnected from the future of US security. Though I have strong opinions on
all of these, I am not passing judgement on American positions here. I am
saying that such decisions cannot be taken as if the US exists in a
The United States remains the greatest hope for the concept of mutual
accommodation and tolerance. With many hiccups, we generally live together in
tolerance and even celebration of diversity. We allow all people the pursuit
of happiness. As the United States chooses a path after Tuesday's tragic loss,
may the leaders find the wisdom to seek out justice, not vengeance, and to
take any retaliatory action with care. May Americans remember to keep one hand
ready for positive action if the other is striking destruction. May we
confront enemies with strength and with kindness and avoid today's global
patterns in which one wrong makes a wrong makes a wrong makes a wrong. . .
May we realize the need to re-engage the world. The stakes cannot be higher.
Colombo, Sri Lanka,
September 12, 2001
Vikram Singh is an American living in Sri Lanka. He works with an independent
research organization and reports on Sri Lanka for the Voice of America.
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