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On the Recognition of Death

by Suren Pillay

I took my usual trip from our apartment off Amsterdam Avenue uphill toward the School of International and Public Affairs building at Columbia University. It was a crisp morning, just a hint of autumn in the air.

On my way to the library I passed the small lounge area for students, where there was a television suspended from the wall. Usually it would be tuned into a financial news or sports channel. Most days don’t pay much attention to the tv, as I pass by on the way to the library. But that morning I noticed a crowd of people standing around it watching intently. This was peculiar.

I walked over. There was a strange silence, as a CNN reporter interviewed a man, an ‘eyewitness’, who described the sound of a jet engine aircraft that passed over him, very low in the sky, as he was out for his usual morning jog around Battery Park. A plane, it turned out at had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought it must have been accident. And it seemed that most other people thought so too–even, it turns out, President Bush.

Knowing the capacity of CNN to run this story endlessly I decided to go the library and get the books I needed. The crash would still be ‘breaking news’ for a long time and if there were further details they didn’t seem to be apparent at the time. When I finished my business in the library I strolled by the TV again. This time the mood was different. A second plane at just hit the second tower. And now it became apparent that there was some organization in this random-seeming event. I heard someone mention ‘terrorists’. There was a palpable sense of anxiousness. Students were trying to contact friends, relatives, loved ones, on their cell phones. The rushed traffic of calls jammed the network. No one could get through. Panic began to set in. There were tears too.

I walked over to the main campus, hoping that I would bump into anyone I knew, and I must admit, anyone I felt I could talk to–a fellow third-worlder maybe. It had become apparent that when people were saying “we are being attacked” that I didn’t seem to be, or for that matter, didn’t want to be, part of that “we”. And when I met some students from South Asia, whom I knew, we soon fell into a quiet conversation about what was going on. Amidst this, people passed by in all directions. Dazed and bewildered.

The South Asians expressed their anxiety about who could be responsible. An American student whom I knew walked past, looking flushed. She turned to me and said “What the fuck’s going on? What are they doing to us?”. It was said in the spirit of eliciting my solidarity. I could only give her a blank stare in that moment. And so too with the rest of the group. I felt for the victims. I wanted to express that. But it was not the language that she was compelling me to respond in. So all I could offer was silence, a long silence. Then she seemed to lose patience, as if she was hurt by my inertia. Bewilderedly she walked off. When I see her these days I can still see that suspicious look on her face.

Within the first few hours after the attacks, a chasm had already began to open up between those who weree able to see this as a ‘thinkable’ event and those who seemed to be utterly and completely taken by surprise–a surprise that could not make this event intelligible or possible. Why would anyone want to do this? How could they hate us? people asked exasperatedly as CNN ran and re-ran repeatedly images of young kids jubilating on the streets of Gaza. Some hoped it was not a real image. And when a report circulated on email about the footage being old archive material many feverishly passed this on. But it was most likely authentic footage. And the point was not to try and erase the jubilation. The point had to be to place the jubilation in a context. To pan out and show that street corner on which those kids danced. For then you would see the most densely populated piece of earth in the world–a refugee camp for generations, hemmed in by the humiliating might and historical force of the Israeli state, the largest recipient of US foreign aid.

The intersection of the past of those kids, with the present of the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers, had to be seen as a crossroads of hopes and fears, of histories of justices and injustices, power and domination. This moment could serve as a microcosm for the larger clash of cognitions–the one that could see a past to this event and the other that could only see its present–and could only see that present through the eyes of looking inward at itself.

The ‘world’ is really a distant place here. For it is ‘here’ and therefore is not out there. The ‘world’ comes here. Wants to be here. It walks through deserts dehydrated to get here. It hides in airplane storage containers. It queues endlessly for a visa. It gambles for a greencard. If New York is the capital of world, the ‘best” place in the world, then the outlying provinces appear as not worthy of enquiry, other than as destinations of pleasure and adventure for the citizens of the center. Or as market opportunities. And as if to offset slightly opportunity and pleasure, the world occasionally features as a charity ball or place of pity.

And now, after the event, a large part of the rest of the world is also seen as a place of fear. Fear comes from outside. And fear lurks within. It hibernates quietly. The agents of fear move amongst us. We stare at them, fixing their profiles and contours in our minds. On subways and street corners, in coffee-shops and restaurants, in taxi cabs and newspaper vendor stands, fear it seems has been able to creep in slowly and undetected. And now we have to ‘regret’ the ease with which we let it in. The body politic is contaminated. So we need to seal off those porous borders: Homeland Security, USA Patriot Act, background checks. These sentiments waft through the air. They imprint themselves on you as you walk down the street. They strip search you with a nervous glance.

And then the bombing and the obsession with military technology. Rarely if ever did you hear about a real person, a civilian, who was killed in Afghanistan. A civilian killed by US bombing was not a civilian, not even collateral damage, but rather a disputed number, a questionable claim. To have given the dead the status of collateral damage was to give them the recognition of death, even if cleansed of its stench by the stainless language of military euphemisms.

To recognize death is to recognize life. But the Afghan dead are not even given that recognition. They are ‘disputed figures’. ‘Taliban propaganda claims’. They are the actually living dead. We are given some numbers: how many cruise missiles, how many Daisy Cutters, how many sorties, how much soldiers, the diameters, the flight distances, the co-ordinates. These numbers make the war real, as real as a video-game. And the casualties we only know as ‘lies’.

It is war fought on the basis of a doctrine that tries to keep the splattered blood of ‘the enemy’, ‘the evil ones’, off your uniform. To keep you far enough away so as not to see the mangled smithereens of fragmented bodies. Contorted and pained bodies, caked in dried blood, rotting: these attributes are only given to the victims of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They are blood and flesh. They are individual biographies. They are fathers, and mothers, brothers and daughters. They are made human, which they rightfully were. They are remembered as a loss to humanity as they rightfully should be. We smell their death, and feel their terror. The wrenching apart of their bodies, that tearing apart of their skin that makes us recognize them as one of ‘us’. They are us, and we feel for them.

Yet in Afghanistan all traces of humanness is erased from ‘the enemy’. The right to possess the stench of death has become a privilege. All trace of loss is edited out of the picture. Either evil or just poor and wretched, ‘they’ are the world as pity, the world as charity, the world as infantile and archaic. And we have been absolved of any feeling that they are one of ‘us’.

The bombs that have rained down have killed more than 3,500 civilians according to one estimate. A big aggregate blob of a number devoid of individuality. A number that we can archive and forget. Because it is a number with no age, with no face, with no smile, with no tears, with no hopes. It is just a number, just a price to be paid by those who peddle mortality and morality at the markets of good and evil.

Suren Pillay is a native of South Africa now at Columbia University in New York City.

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