Thwarting terror: From Boston to Bombay, let’s create a new circle of empathy

boston-newI was working on a deadline when two bombs went off near the Boston Marathon finish line at Copley Square on Monday (April 15, 2013). Had I not been chained to my desk that day, I would most certainly have joined the spectators to cheer the runners. And on any other day, marathon or not, I could have been at Copley Square. Like Tiananmen Square in China or Tahrir Square in Egypt, Copley is where we gather to hold political rallies of all kinds. It was here that I joined a human chain on February 14 this year to protest against the brutal Delhi gang-rape of a young physiotherapist and demand the Violence Against Women Act. Copley Square is just that sort of place. On any given day, you can see office workers and shop assistants stepping out for a smoke. My friends and I routinely meet there to while away an afternoon on the steps of the Boston Public Library. It is the place you go to see and to be seen.

What saved me from the explosions was a deadline. At the time of the blasts, I was writing a story about the 1984 riots against Sikhs in North India for a magazine. In the story, a Sikh family is on the run after their home and shop are under threat of arson, but most of their Hindu friends refuse to take them in. At first glance, it seems wrong or insensitive to compare the two tragedies, because one wants to mourn the injured here and now, to give Boston its due. But the real reason why it seems wrong to compare April 2013 with November 1984 is because of this new category of terrorism through which we are asked to understand such violence. Terror is created by anonymity on both sides: both the perpetrators and the victims are unknown to one another. And in the absence of known perpetrators, you blame the easy targets.

Within minutes of the bomb blasts, two things happened: concerned humanitarians formed groups on Facebook to offer medical care and shelter to those affected. And elsewhere on the social media platform, fear-mongers blamed the attacks on Muslims. In the earliest news byte “a Saudi” man had been held by the police for questioning. He had no other identity, just that he was “a Saudi man.” Later on, in an article published on the New Yorker website, we learned that this “Saudi man” was a 20-year old student who had his “body torn into by the force of a bomb,” and that even while he was being treated in the hospital, the authorities were searching his apartment.

This ‘Us vs. Them’ argument scares us brown-folk who are as much a victim of the violence, but have to stand with the suspects until the evidence exonerates us. Whether we are Muslims or Hindus, we are all suspect. And for this reason, we are forced to stand together. Living in America has made Indian Hindus aware of vulnerability. We learn what it feels like to be a minority, which is a good lesson to bring back to India when we blame other religious minorities such as Muslims for acts of terror in our country, as often happens until the real perpetrators sometimes turn out to be members of right-wing Hindutva groups.

It makes us aware of how much we contribute to the propagation of terror via our own misgivings and misunderstandings. For example, soon after the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks, India’s 26/11 moment, a prominent Indian celebrity said on TV that she’d seen Muslim slums in Mumbai hoisting Pakistani flags. Someone had to tell her that the flag bore the crescent and star of Islam and signified no anti-Indian sentiments. Still, this celebrity went on to demand that the Indian army go and “do the job” in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and “invisibly” uproot terrorist training camps, and in the heat of passion we cheered her, even though we know what this demand would result in: endangering the lives of innocent people, who, just like us, have nothing to do with the outfits of terror that brew in our towns. On social media channels, including YouTube, the blame game and the communal hate messages continue. That, too, is terror.
What we choose to, or are forced to ignore about terror, is our own culpability in the spread of hate. We are taught to dissociate and isolate our incident of violence in which we suffer, from all others. In the case of the 1984 Sikh pogrom, we know and remember the tragedy as the culmination of a Sikh demand for a separate state. Our parents tell us who the perpetrators were, and who the victims. Might we learn something from the way we talk about the 1984 massacre? That one act of violence is connected to and breeds so many others. That drone attacks in Pakistan have killed thousands of innocent people, including small children, and that on the same day, April 15, a bomb blast in Iraq killed at least 42 people and injured 250 in what seems to be the continuing legacy of the American occupation of the country?

In the 1984 story, the Sikh family finally hides in the house of their 10-year old daughter’s teacher. Just like here in Boston, people are opening their homes to those who came for the marathon from out of town, regardless of their race and national origin. Because if war can extend beyond borders, then so can our empathy.

I know this is might not be the time to take our share of the blame, but to flex our muscles. To complete that last mile of the marathon, and to show our resilience! But as a brown person who has lived through terror and genocide, I want to respond with empathy, and seek connection. Because connection is the only way we will feel less afraid.

Might our response consist as much about completing the circle as about flexing our muscles of resilience? “You messed with the wrong city,” and “Nothing’s gonna change,” are good personal mottos. But collectively, might we be a bit more humble and extend our empathy as well as our understanding beyond our borders? Might we return to Copley Square and think, not, ‘They Did This,’ but, remember the drones strikes in Pakistan and think, “We allowed that to happen?” The point is terror knows no boundaries, and there is no reason why human empathy should not transcend narrow divides to heal, comfort and forge a new solidarity of the human heart to thwart the flow of terror.

(Shilpi Suneja is a Boston-based writer and is pursuing an MFA from University of Massachusetts, Boston)