Like most people in America I have spent too many hours this past
week sitting in front of a television set and watching recurring
images on the screen, while listening to a revolving panel of journalists,
eyewitnesses, experts, and politicians, who are trying to make sense
of the horrific events in New York and Washington. After the initial
shock and disbelief of seeing skyscrapers destroyed by airplanes,
then realizing that people were inside, inevitably one feels a need
to recast those terrifying images as stories in which we somehow
play a part, however peripheral that may be.
In my own case, I connect those images and voices on television
with a journey I made in 1997, crossing the India-Pakistan border
and traveling to the Khyber Pass, which leads into Afghanistan.
At the time my objective was to try to unravel the meaning of borders
and the ways in which personal and national identity are shaped
and confined by lines on a map. As a writer I wanted to describe
both the people and the landscape that I encountered while trying
to connect contemporary experiences with the history of this region.
Now,as I look back on that journey and try to comprehend the events
of the past week, what strikes me is the false mythology of a frontier
"a lawless, no man's land," where justice is delivered through the
barrel of a gun. What frightens me most of all is that these distorted
myths are being perpetuated in both the media coverage and in the
rhetoric of our leaders.
Too often Afghanistan is portrayed as a desolate, ungoverned and
ungovernable land, where guerrilla fighters wage a perpetual war
against outsiders and against themselves. While certain elements
of this may be true, it is a preconception that displaces reality.
The vast majority of Afghans are not warlords, terrorists or fanatics
as we are led to believe. Instead they are farmers, merchants, teachers
and students who have endured many years of civil war and drought.
A large number of Afghans have been forced to flee into Pakistan
as refugees, where they live in camps near the border, waiting to
go home. The Taliban, who control most of the territory and institutions
in Afghanistan, deserve criticism for many of their policies but
it would be wrong to say that they represent the majority of the
population. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in the west to caricature
the Afghan people as lawless tribes of men with beards and turbans
who carry weapons. Recently this image has been reinforced through
pictures of Osama Bin Laden, though he himself is not an Afghan.
This is a stereotype that can be traced back to the frontier mythology
of the British Empire and it is rooted in colonial prejudice.
America's own frontier myths took shape at the same time as the
British were fighting their Afghan wars. It is both ironic and unfortunate
that current events have brought these narratives together. When
one hears the president of the United States say that we will "smoke
(the terrorists) out of their holes," and "hunt them down," and
that Osama Bin Laden will be taken, "dead or alive," one cannot
help but wonder where this rhetoric will take us. By depicting Afghanistan
as a lawless state and its inhabitants as renegades, we begin to
persuade ourselves that the only course of action is a military
assault. In this way it becomes easier to accept the idea of frontier
justice and to ignore the innocent casualties that will occur when
cruise missiles are launched against Kabul and Kandahar. Here in
America, where one would imagine there have been enough deaths already,
we can see the terrible consequences of these misconceptions. On
September 16, in Mesa, Arizona, a gas station owner named Balbir
Singh Sodhi was gunned down on the street,apparently in retribution
for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Sodhi
was not an Afghan nor an Arab. He was not a Muslim but a Sikh. And
the only reason he was killed is that he had a beard, was dark skinned,
and wore a turban.
Stephen is a Writer-in-Residence in MIT's Program in Writing
and Humanistic Studies. His book, Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey
Across the India-Pakistan Border, was published in November 2000.
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