Living in Terror

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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 Washington.

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 more violence.

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 continue.

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 evil actions.

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 on earth.

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 disconnected world.

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.

Vikram Singh

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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