Monday, November 30, 2015

Terrorism of Bigotry

It is lamentable to observe, that in the face of unspeakable human violence, what emerges is more violence and less compassion. We see this cycle repeat time and again, as people lose all rational thought, and replace it with fear, racism and bigotry. As a result every generation has its group of people it demonizes and vilifies. Sometimes the group is defined by its belief system and at other times by its race or region of origin. But for the most part, the whole group is victimized in response to the actions of a few. This time, it is the Syrians who are at the receiving end.

The recent carnage in Paris shook us yet again, as did the bombings in Nigeria and Beirut and in Turkey last month, the killing of school children in Pakistan a year ago, and the senseless attacks on the people of Mumbai in 2011. This list is painfully long and only gets longer. Even though it seems clear that the value and attention put on life lost is determined by where one resides, under the skin, all victims share a common bond. The bond of innocence. And so the grief felt for each innocent life lost must be the same. Every decent life lost to violence is worthy of an obituary in the New York Times or The Economist. It is reprehensible though, how our grieving has become selective and how the media chooses to highlight one over the other. Giving us the impression that it is only the west that is at the brunt of mindless terrorism and it is only "their way of life" that is under threat. When in fact more Muslims have died at the hands of demented terrorists and their way of life matters as much as anyone else's.

The fear, paranoia and hysteria that follows terrorist attacks, especially in the west, has become much too predictable these days. The usual politics of fear enters the debate and the media pundits and politicians blast off with little regard for  facts and no patience for the investigation to reveal reality.

This time around, the Paris attacks exposed a side of American politics that is deeply disturbing. Racism was dished out overtly without apology. All Republican candidates running for the presidency, saw it as an opportunity to play into the fear of people watching gore on television. As it was revealed that these terrorists had links to ISIS and were motivated by their hatred for all things western, it was soon translated into a fear of all 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world. When it was found that one of them could have been among the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, all refugees were declared dangerous and suspect. And the fear mongering began unanimously across the board.

Republican candidate Donald Trump called for the creation of an exclusive database to track Muslims in America and those entering the country. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for only Christian Syrians to be let into the country. When asked how one would determine this, Jeb Bush shrugged and said "well you could tell!". Other candidates unanimously chimed in on barring Syrian refugees from being let into the country for fear of a terrorist attack.

But what was most appalling was when the United States House of Representatives passed a bill banning Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country until key national security agencies certified that they didn't pose a security threat to the nation. Refugees entering America already undergo between 18 months to two years of screenings by intelligence agencies. So what this bill would accomplish in addition to what already is in place, escaped all logic. The bill was hastily passed in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The vote was 289-137, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans in favor of the bill, creating a majority that could override President Barack Obama's promised veto. The bill though faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Minority Leader Harry Reid said he will try to block the bill.

At the heart of this bill is nothing but fear, bigotry and racism. No one in their sane mind with any integrity can deny, that what lit the fuse to the chaos that is engulfing Syria and Iraq today, is America's short sighted, illegal and ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, more than a decade ago. Therefore the United States is culpable in the misery that has befallen the people of Syria. The least we can do, is offer them a safe haven and not demonize them as terrorists. Earlier as the refugee crises stressed Europe, President Obama offered to allow 10,000 refugees into the country. A minuscule amount in the face of tens of thousands on the run. The congress is now attempting to condemn even those to the dark.

America's generosity, sometimes offsets the chaos that its government's damaging policies unleash upon the globe. Many nations have not stepped up to the task of helping the refugees fleeing war in Syria. The least America can do, is show some heart. There is nothing more shameful for a nation that prides itself in hosting the Statue of Liberty, in my city of New York, than to turn away people in dire need.

What we see today in America is nothing new. In 1938 fewer than 5 percent of Americans believed the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing Fascism in Europe. The vast majority of those refugees were Jewish. Thousands of Jews died as a result of America dragging its feet. Bigotry against the Jews was wide spread in American society then, even though the largest prewar population of Jews in the world, thrived in the US. We see the same bigotry against Muslims now, as the words Islam and Terrorism ring together more and more on our television screens and social media.

Most of the terrorists who took part in the horrific attacks in Paris, were French citizens with links to ISIS. The one who was found with a Syrian passport, had entered through Greece, and the authenticity of that passport is still unclear. So to make the lives of thousands of Syrian refugees - many of them women and children- suspect, is not only misguided and misinformed, but evil.

Much like cancer, terrorism has become a disease we all have to live with as long as there are wars on this planet. The reality is, wars in far off places cannot be contained as they used to. The globe has shrunk and violence sees no borders. When you have people who are willing to strap bombs to their bodies to kill, incidents like Paris will return time and again. But that does not mean we accept it and not look for a cure. As we take preventive measures and live healthy to reduce the risk of cancer, we do not stop looking for a cure. Similarly, yes we must defend ourselves from terrorism with all means possible, but we must also take a hard look at why some people are motivated enough to cause harm and change their circumstances. And we must acknowledge that all lives, everywhere, matter - equally.

The phrase "winning hearts and minds" is often used as a remedy to stop young people from sacrificing their lives at the alter of extremist ideology. But if we are going to be bigoted, how does one even begin to win hearts and minds? The double standards of waging war on one hand and deeply being immersed in the commerce of weaponry and talking peace and democracy on the other, does not go unnoticed even to the most uninitiated.

Recently, a meeting between whistle-blowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, author Arundhati Roy and actor John Cusak in a hotel room in Moscow, has been in the news, for being both a seminal and a quasi-Hollywood moment. The unflattering photo of Roy, Cusak and Snowden on a Ritz-Carlton bed, undermines all seriousness, but what struck me was what Daniel Ellsberg said in a conversation with Arundhati Roy, which she published in a piece for The Guardian. He said with regards to the US, "One more 9/11, and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of detentions. Middle Easterners and Muslims will be put in detention camps or deported. After 9/11, we had thousands of people arrested without charges… But I’m talking about the future. I’m talking the level of the Japanese in the second world war… I’m talking of hundreds of thousands in camps or deported. I think the surveillance is very relevant to that. They will know who to put away – the data is already collected.” So the database Donald Trump said he would like to create for Muslims if he were president, may already exist. It is what it is.