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The importance of being intolerant

September 14, 2011


-Photo illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/

I was putting on my shoes, getting ready for work when ABC News switched over to Breaking News from the World Trade Centre. The first tower was already burning, and even as I tied my shoelaces, I saw a plane ram into the second tower. Just like that, the world changed.

Being a minion in the Indian IT industry, working onsite for a Fortune-500 client in the American Midwest, I knew that I must behave as my employer expected me to. But just in case some of us felt reckless enough to voice an opinion, our boss held an end-of-day meeting of the 100-odd people posted at the client location and gave us a speech. The gist of it was:

Be sensitive and apolitical.

Having spent the day interfacing with our Americans clients, we already knew that. Our clients were angry, bewildered, scared; far from their usual jovial selves. I was particularly disturbed by the transformation of one quiet gentleman (let’s call him Barry). Before this day, I knew Barry to be a reserved and helpful man. Wouldn’t have the heart to say boo to a goose, I thought. But on the morning of 9/11, during a routine Design Review meeting, Barry declared:

‘They don’t know us Americans. We’ll go after those b@$#%^ds, you just watch.’

The 1993 serial bomb blasts of Mumbai immediately sprang to my mind. Although the blasts were masterminded by a heartless gangster and the day felt like a siege. I just couldn’t experience a moment of unadulterated rage. I was trying to establish a causal link, rationalise, maybe accept a portion of the blame. In the months following 9/11, I didn’t meet many Americans in a similar mood.

‘What do you think of this act?’ a couple of clients asked, looking at me pointedly as they did so.

‘It’s inhuman. Terrible. An international tragedy,’ I replied, letting out an agreeable portion of my opinion. ‘How could anybody do such a thing to us?’ was another popular question.

‘What sane person can defend the actions of manufactured madmen?’ I would ask in turn, releasing another heartfelt sentiment.

These extremely rare exchanges felt like loyalty tests. Some Americans wanted to be certain that everybody in their vicinity believed in peace, democracy and the unbridled pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile, George W Bush was telling the world, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Because the world apparently operates on binary mode, and, that whole history involving the US, Russia, Afghanistan and the al Qaeda was nothing more than unrelated gossip. With a hardliner in the White House and Fox News taking jingoism to an unprecedented level, I often wondered whether the American public would ever introspect on its government’s approach to geopolitics.

There were moments when the jingoism got on my nerves. Like when the bombing of an Afghan wedding procession in July 2002 got only a fraction of the coverage accorded to martyred US soldiers. At such times, I craved for candid conversations with Americans. But long work hours had disabled me from making friends outside the office and I had no right to jeopardise my employer’s relationship with clients by bringing up controversial topics. So I limited myself to observing, absorbing and analysing.

It occurred to me that the US is a society unencumbered by history. The average American is the product of a young nation, not bogged down by unpleasant memories. 9/11 happened 60 years after Pearl Harbour; mainland America itself had not been attacked since the Civil War. In other words, America was a veritable terror-virgin as on 11 September 2001. And the attack was akin to a rape. It is in this context that America defined its willingness to initiate a prolonged and bloody war on the perpetrators of the attack as well as sundry parties.

A knowledgeable friend of mine feels that this approach reveals “America’s linear sense of time” – a clear action had to necessarily lead to an uncomplicated set of reactions. The keyword here is uncomplicated. A terrible word to be associated with the only superpower in the world, but quite a desirable trait in people. Indeed, the uncomplicated nature of Americans make them pleasant company. I have nothing but positive memories of the time I spent with them. Without exception, they accepted me as I was, and welcomed me to the workplace and even their homes and weddings. My only racist experience involved a swarm of New York cops (an anecdote for another day). The citizens retained their dignity and warmth throughout. Even when I – a nut-brown contracted consultant, a spitting image of the rank outsider – robbed them of career growth opportunities by my very presence.

Contrast this whole picture with us, the steeped-in-history residents of the subcontinent. We’ve lost the imagination and sensitivity to liken a terror attack to a rape. For us, the latest bomb blast is an undesirable and unavoidable transaction, a fee we pay for living in the epicentre of trouble. We also have a penchant for complicating events. Our memories stretch back to the dawn of civilisation. We believe in all the parallel narratives spawned over time, and there’s always an argumentative line of reasoning within reach. What is never within reach is a solution – the ability to secure ourselves.

Simply put, we’ve been numbed out of our skins.

The biggest lesson the past decade has taught us is that we must learn the right way to be intolerant. To do so, we have to unlearn our existing models of intolerance, never emulate the intolerance exhibited by the US government (oh, God, no!), but embrace, with all our might, the kind of intolerance exhibited by American citizens. Sure, they stumble a lot when a crisis emerges, but they eventually find their feet and, with the help of sharp liberals, find the guts to acknowledge their bloopers and catch up on relevant political facts.

Most of all, the American public can teach us that history must act as a compass, not a millstone.

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.