Shrouded by Flags

By Vijay Prashad
Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program, Trinity College

19 September 2001

 
My sister who lives in California called me on the evening of September 11 (which is written as 9/11 in the US, and which, as 911, is the number for an emergency phone call). She was agitated, and said that someone in her workplace said to her, "My friend says we should kill all the brown people." She was aghast, especially when another co-worker asked her, "Why are you looking so sad?" A devout Buddhist, my sister abhors violence of any kind and was devastated by the tragedy in New York and Washington. And yet, her skin seared the imagination of those who see her each day; one day, suddenly, she became a terrorist.

And so did all of us. This is not a new feeling. When I first got to the US, in the early 1980s, someone called me a "sand nigger." Illiterate in the ways of racism, I was puzzled as are many immigrants, and had to ask a friend what to make of the insult. The context then was Gaddafi, and I chanced to have his hairstyle and even look a bit like him. All that reappeared during the Gulf War, as many desis who looked like Palestinians and Iraqis found themselves followed by men in dark suits. For the first few days after the 1995 destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building, I felt like a terrorist again. And, when I got word of the WTC devastation, I prayed in my own atheist way that the perpetrator was not an Arab, or someone like me. They were and I'm a terrorist again.

And so was Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, shot in Mesa (Arizona) by a man who said to the police "I stand for America all the way." And so was Waqar Hassan, 46, of Dallas (Texas), slain in cold blood as he worked at Mom's Grocery. And Ashraf Khan, another Pakistani-Texas and a cell phone magnate, was removed from his first class seat by a Delta pilot who said that Mr. Khan endangered the plane. And there are the mosques, gurudwaras and temples firebombed and desecrated, just as those who look like terrorists find their homes under threat from the forces of jingoism and xeno-racism. Many desis and Arabs refuse to leave their homes, scared to walk in the open in the "land of the free."

The Indian embassy had the bad taste to try to suggest ways to differentiate us from the real terrorists. Women should wear bindis, a consular official wrote in a publicly circulated document. And the men, they should wear bindis too, said a friend in jest. In the mid-1980s, the bindi provided a set of racists with a name for their anti-desi organization, the Dotbusters. Now the Indian consulate, without irony, urges us to wear the dots as protection. And for Sikhs, the nightmare of the turban as a sign of
difference reminds them and all of us of the horror of the 1984 Delhi riots. Turbans, bindis, kurtas, kirpans - all these signs of difference only enhance our skins, our features, the way we already look like terrorists. No disguise is good enough, it seems.

Things got so bad, so fast that President George W. Bush had to make an appearance at a Washington DC mosque on September 17th to mollify desis and Arabs, as well as to say "those who feel they can intimidate our fellow Americans by taking out their anger, they don't represent the best of America."

But just as Bush made this conciliatory, and necessary gesture, the Justice Department of the United States took action against those who look like terrorists - the desis and Arabs. Attorney General John Ashcroft informed the country that whereas previously the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) could only hold an "alien that had been taken into custody because of a violation" for twenty-four hours, the new regulation would allow the INS to hold the "alien" for "forty-eight hours, or to an additional reasonable time." In one swoop, the Justice Department revoked the right of habeas corpus for non-citizens of the US, and it allowed officers of the Law to turn any "violation" (not a guilty verdict) into an excuse for indefinite detention.

Meanwhile, in many neighborhoods in New York City, white men with small US flags make the rounds of the immigrant owned small grocery stores. They bang these flags, which retail at about $1 each, on the counter and say things like "aren't you going to be a patriot and buy this flag." The flag will cost the immigrant workers $5, but they'll be far too scared to refuse. The test of loyalty, the agni-pariksha of the US, has begun for all of us again.

Flags festoon the streets of the US, on most lampposts, on many cars, in front of homes, on t-shirts, on hats, flying from baby carriages. It is as if the acts of terror from the 11th of September must be washed away or else exorcised with an excessive display of nationalistic jingoism. Or else it has something to do with a people's desperate attempt to find a way to grieve for the dead - to seek some way to show the depth of one's feelings. A psychologist on the radio mentions that some people to whom he had spoken felt guilty that they had not died, or they did not know anyone personally who had died. There is an underdeveloped capacity for empathy, to feel for someone without being in that situation oneself, to reach out to someone without having any comparable experience. But empathy is not something we are well-trained in, for we have no empathy for those Afghans who have seen the rubble that stands in for their homes moved from one valley to the next during one exchange of fire to another. Or perhaps the flag episode is an example of manufactured jingoism, where one's measure of patriotism is measured by the size of one's flag and peer pressure engenders enthusiasm from one house to the next.

I have no animus to the flag, but I fear that it does not say bereavement, only more death. The planes and ships make their way to the Indian Ocean, as tired sailors prime the guns for a long drawn out conflict. And, stateside, different guns are deployed against those of us who look like terrorists.

When Timothy McVeigh was arrested and found guilty for the terrorist act in Oklahoma, white men did not feel like terrorists. There was no general discussion about the civil liberties of white men. White men did not get removed from airplanes, nor did they read guilt in the whites of the eyes of those around them. In the aftermath of that event, the US government passed a draconian immigration law and an anti-terrorist act that mainly targeted those who look like terrorists. And we know that Timothy McVeigh did not look like a terrorist. I do.

In my book Karma of Brown Folk I suggested that we desis are treated as a model minority mainly as a weapon against African Americans. If we lay claim to being "white," we are only whites on probation. They have now revoked our probation. We are being called to task for how we look. I am shrouded by flags, lost in the haze of that social decay called racism even as I too grieve for those innocents that lost their lives on 9/11.
 
 

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