One or two presidential appeals cannot undo existing prejudices
Stabroek News
October 16, 2001

Dear Editor,

Images of the horror still haunt my sleeping and waking hours. Seems like I am still in the crowd running and tumbling over one another, hundreds, their eyes popping out with fear, and I wake up sweating. It was traumatic enough for those who saw the grotesque playbacks on TV; it was an Armageddon for those of us caught in the melee. It was not just my ring-side stand from four blocks away watching the first building burn, and witnessing the second plane come in and plunge with splicing accuracy into the south tower, it was the deafening boom of death, the instantaneous infernal flare that flashed the threat of mass annihilation on us. And later it was the acrid taste and smell of destruction, it was my immersion with the ashes of the dead, and the sacrilegious trudging and trampling through a half-inch thickness of cinders that baptized the lower city. It was my helter-skelter dash, with a million and more for the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge to escape the city whose mechanical ingress and egress were immediately shut down.

It was the horror of actually seeing three bodies sailing through the air from a thousand feet high. That turned my stomach inside out and I threw my coffee away and bolted for the safety of my office, on the 13th floor.

I struggled to reach my office. From there I could have a better view, but more importantly, call my family, for them to abort their planned visit to the World Trade Center. Too late. They had already left home.

It was four hours later that I learned they were safe. They had emerged from the subway at Chambers Street, three blocks from the scene of disaster just in time to see the south tower collapse. After a brief refuge in a barber-shop, they escaped north to the safety of a friend's home on 10th Street.

From my vantage point on the 13th floor office I had been watching the towering infernos. Millions of sheets of paper hovered in the sky like souls floating away from bodies. And the buildings burned with ferocity. I saw the perpendicular of the first tower move some ten to fifteen feet out of line, and I marveled aloud to my secretary that the massive engineering miracle had not yet toppled with all that heat. Scarcely a minute later the south tower fell with the frightening thunder of a Hiroshima bomb. Seconds later the city was consumed by a huge cloud of death and destruction, and visibility for twenty minutes was no more than two or three feet outside the window. Then the north tower fell, and darkness again descended from the wings of a Satanic eagle.

My son and I had been in constant communication trying to track down the rest of my family. "Get out of that government building," he was actually crying. "They have just bombed the Pentagon and the White House." I left.

Out in the street the howling had ceased, and only a few stragglers scuttled. Death choked me, and someone offered me a mask. Then I heard the Air Force Bombers arrive. The same ones they later said were dispatched to intercept the highjacked airlines. I scurried over the Brooklyn Bridge and walked all the way home to Queens. I kept the mask, and I never washed the shoes of the cremated dead I brought home.

We had no celebration nor dinner that day. It was the next day that Jennifer gathered strength and with tears in her eyes lit a solitary candle on the birthday cake. It tasted as bitter as the tears. But it was even more bitter when we later learned that two of my relatives, a maternal (favourite)cousin, and the niece of a paternal cousin were also victims of the WTC disaster, one from each tower.

A few days later one evening as my wife and I walked Joshua, our two-year old grandson round the block, people gathered on porches discussing in shock and awe the fateful tragedy. About six adults were in the front yard of my neighbour, two houses from me. As Joshua paused to play with their dog, my wife said "hello". Six frigid faces looked up. Not one responded. It was then the awful truth dawned.

Yesterday, more than two weeks after the President's appeal not to victimize Moslems, Sikhs and other immigrants, my wife reported how she witnessed a burly individual harassing a Sikh in the train while everyone sat and watched. A Guyanese woman sitting next to the Sikh advised him to change cars.

The burly individual then turned his wrath on the woman. The sad truth is, one or two Presidential appeals to the public cannot undo what has been and still is being institutionally nurtured in the American psyche.

Like everyone the world over we were glued to the TV set for several days. There were talks and talks and more talks. And every one was an expert. And the question they kept regurgitating was: "Why did they do this to us?" And all the experts had what they believed was the right answer. "They hate us because we are America, the mighty, because of our freedom and our progress."

But in another programme, in which Tom Brokaw who was talking to a bunch of school kids, two points struck me. One, a girl about twelve years old asked if it wasn't the US commitment to Israel that left the Arab World with a feeling of being victimized, thus resulting in their terror retaliation. The question, of course, went unanswered. The other point was when the moderator revealed his ignorance of the difference between Islam and Hinduism when he asked the Moslem representative on the programme about their belief in reincarnation. The truth is, ignorance and prejudice are so gratifying that it would mean a fall from grace and dignity should they dare to educate themselves on the cultures and religions of "backward" peoples. It is easier to remain in ignorance and hate all Moslems, and anyone that looked like them.

Sadly, the process of covertly mis-educating the American people has been going on for over fifty years. How many actually know why they fought in Vietnam, or why they hate Cuba's Castro. Why did they install and prop up for almost three decades, the PNC regime in Guyana? Before education can enter the mind, prejudice must exit. The hi-jacking of four planes on US soil, the successful attack and destruction of two of the tallest buildings in the world, was facilitated not because of the weakness of internal security, but by arrogance and prejudice of the people and their refusal to accept that men who lived in caves and mountains were smarter than they. So long as prejudice and arrogance persist, the country will be vulnerable.

Call the troops home, Mr President. Tell the American people the truth why the Arab nations are pursuing terrorism. And implement policies to correct this perspective they have that Israel and America are one and the same. Only a fraction of the billions budgeted for the war is needed to correct this perspective. Let not the people be fooled that religious extremists or fanatics are but a tiny faction of Islam, and that this fight is not gainst Islam but only against loose groups of terrorists. The fact that there are dozens of terrorist camps sheltered by dozens of Islamic nations debunks this myth. The threats of biological, chemical and nuclear warfare are too imminent over the world. The US economy has already taken a severe battering costing over a trillion dollars in one week alone. Unemployment has reached a ten-year high.

Is the cost of prejudice worth the price of peace?

The world is now at a turning point. And one man holds the wheel.

After two weeks I went back to the World Trade Disaster. Some fires still burned, and the smell of ash and death still lingered in the air. I flashed my city ID card, and lo and behold, it worked! A week ago I tried it and it didn't. I managed to get close up to the wreckage. There were piles at least fifty feet high that were yet untouched by the recovery workers. I estimated at the rate they were going it would take at least another six months.

That sight brought Shelley's sonnet, Ozymandias, to my mind:

"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold com mand,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on those lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Yours faithfully,
David Gokarran Sukhdeo
Winner Guyana Prize for Literature -