Far & Near column for the Hindustan Times (published 13 September, 2016)
Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in a high school anthropology class when news arrived of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. It came in the shape of my twin brother Ishaan, who had a free period in the morning and thus had the liberty to interrupt our class with this breathless report. None of us had mobile phones so we had to go see for ourselves. We rushed to the roof of our Manhattan school, three miles from “Ground Zero,” and took in the utterly surreal sight of smoke spewing from the twin towers. I had no idea then that this wounded vista would be one of the defining images of the century.
It can be tempting for New Yorkers to remember the 9/11 attacks in a personal way. Many New Yorkers died or lost loved ones. A family friend was killed in the towers. School friends who lived in downtown neighbourhoods were made into refugees in their own city. We gathered in mourning in nightly candle-lit vigils in Union Square. For a few harrowing days, our mundane urban existence seemed raised to the lofty state of history.
And yet it feels increasingly indulgent to think of 9/11 as a New York tragedy, or even as a particularly American tragedy. The horror of that day is dwarfed by what followed — the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wider instability in West Asia, the fanning of Islamist extremism, drone warfare, torture, refugee crises, and terrorism and repression from Canada to China. We might have felt shaken in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attack in New York, but so many other parts of the world continue to tremble.
Thanks to its size and diversity, America has long had the luxury of being somewhat insular, its people able to satisfy their cultural needs within the continental bounds of the nation. In both politics and culture, Americans have yet to process the events of 9/11. No American novel or film has managed to grapple with the full trauma of that day. Similarly, the public maintains only a superficial interest in the turns of American foreign policy. This unwillingness to comprehend the outside world is powerfully evident in the current presidential campaign.
I’m often frustrated when the media facilitates “serious conversations” about foreign policy. The standard is rather low. Candidates are judged not on the content of what they say, but on their ability to sound like they are saying something at all. During the Republican primary debates that led to the nomination of Donald Trump, proposed solutions to the problems in West Asia included “carpet bombing” and “taking the oil.” There was a sophomoric quality to these discussions, abetted in part by the journalist moderators who patiently allowed the candidates to grope from empty statement to platitude to gross error as if they were teenagers competing in a high school debate. In the Democratic primary debates, Bernie Sanders was woefully vague in critiquing Hillary Clinton’s hawkish policy record. She appeared the more convincing candidate not because she possessed keener insights or more sophisticated policy positions, but because she knew more proper nouns.