The vanished moment
By-Mihir S. Sharma
Nov 27, 2009
When it happened, 9/11 genuinely altered the way people throughout America thought, at least for the next year. It was impossible to go anywhere in that stunned country, read anything, or have a conversation without being informed that “everything had changed.”
9/11 permeated every experience for that first year because, for the US, it was completely, shockingly, harrowingly unprecedented. Nobody — not trusted anchors, not politicians, not comedians — had any instincts that could help: each was accustomed to dealing with tragedy from a distance. And the average American was even more unprepared for the sudden shock of vulnerability, the thought that their country, so distant from anywhere problematic, could no longer rely on that physical remoteness. Which is why parts of the US where politicians can win elections by denouncing big cities nevertheless responded so strongly to the attacks on New York and DC: the geographical isolation was shared, the freshly-felt insecurity too. They hadn’t realised that they were targets; they were trying to figure out why.
Indians knew terrorism. The attacks horrified, but we knew what about them horrified: the scale, the targets, the cold-bloodedness. It was not as if we discovered for the first time a year ago that there was an outside world, in which many people disliked us enough to try to kill as many of us as spectacularly as possible. That explains both the loudest initial reaction — anger instead of shock, and not at the perpetrators but at the government and at “politicians” — as also how, over the year that followed, people began to shout themselves hoarse about the mysterious disappearance of expressions of that anger.
But shouting won’t help. India just doesn’t feel the same way that America did about 9/11, and no number of borrowed phrases — “Lest We Forget”, anyone? — will change that. And we should be glad of that. Because the feverish atmosphere that American public life had that year was in no way a good thing. Individuals made misjudgements then that they have since regretted; and so, far worse, did the organs of government, rushing panicked into policies since repudiated — such as “waterboarding” of detainees — and which have now been blamed by officials on the paranoia that seemed everywhere those months.
Of course, the institutional solidity of the US ensured that a bipartisan commission sat down and produced a public, authoritative report about what went wrong and what needed fixing. If our governments, Central or state, have done something as comprehensive, we certainly haven’t seen it. Nor have we held answerable either the state’s political leadership, or whoever in the Mumbai police hierarchy is to blame for its sluggish overall response. “Show of force” parades are a poor substitute for accountability.
Nevertheless, India’s response in general, both at the level of the state and of the average citizen, has been thankfully free of the hysteria that, understandably, was everywhere in America after 9/11.
So why push to replicate — artificially, inaccurately, in miniature, and in bad taste — the trappings of America’s grief? Why the human chains, the painted walls (variously described as “art” and “graffiti” by people with differing aesthetic standards), why the endless exhortations to stay angry, to stay sad, to “never forget”?
Remember, 9/11 was unique for America. More may have died in the attacks on Mumbai than have in other terrorist attacks in India, but too many had died already. And it would be absurdly optimistic to expect that no others will die in the years to come. Will we memorialise every attack? Just as Lutyens Delhi and the Yamuna bank fill up with memorials, will we dot our news calendar with tragic anniversaries? And if not, if all India’s long and complex encounter with choreographed political violence is collapsed into one commemorative date, won’t that be a massive lie, if one of omission?
Look at the name that we have chosen to give the attacks on Mumbai in conscious echo of 9/11. It signposts what we’ve left out. The attacks hurt because so many died; but they were traumatic, and exposed something raw, because they lasted so long. If anything, the fact that so little changed through all of November 27 was more scarring than learning of the first strikes on November 26. The confused and delayed response, the very public humiliation of India’s security apparatus was what set the attacks apart. A focus on the initial horrifying spectacle on that first night, the parallel to the twin tower strikes, won’t get at that essential truth.
What stands revealed today, a bare year on, is how synthetic is the emotion-from-above to which we’re increasingly subjected. Moments of genuine collective emotion tend to be fleeting. (And usually slightly embarrassing in retrospect for the participants. Speak to a Briton about the day Diana died, and see his ears turn red.) Asking us to relive it as one, when we’ve internalised it in different ways, is plainly ridiculous. And doomed to fail.
In CST, on the morning of the 26th, part of the long-distance platform had been cordoned off for various ceremonies throughout the day: wreath-laying by various dignitaries, a multi-religious prayer service, the usual. But all around that, Mumbai’s famously harried commuters went about their day. If they paused to remember without being forced to by a camera thrust in their face, it wasn’t obvious. And why should they? For some of them, the commuter train bombs of 2006 may have hit closer to home, or the blasts of 1993. Many others may simply want to forget.
But some seem puzzled by this, oddly nostalgic for those bits of last November that seemed to be made for SMS campaigns and snappy posters, unhinged rants about politicians and threats of secession. Silly, because that candle-waving anger felt slightly choreographed to begin with, a cheap knockoff of the equally kitschy but considerably deeper-rooted flag-waving defiance of America post-9/11.
America has grown beyond that time. Glenn Beck, their TV’s populist man-of-the-moment, misses it as much as do our populist men-of-the-moment. He runs something called the 9/12 project, which he says “will return America to the
solidarity they shared” on the day after. Tough job. New York has grown accustomed to living with terror alerts, and the rest of the country has recollected its traditional contempt for New York.
Here, the daily violence, or threats of it, that many of our
citizens face always made the prospect of that solidarity a little doubtful. And for the rest, a thousand televised candlelit vigils for a thousand middle-class causes inevitably belittle the thousand-and-first, trivialising what they are trying to elevate.
What happened last November was terrible. But it affected all of us differently. And it affects us differently now from how it did then. Can we not leave it at that?