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Counting For Nothing: Reflections On The First Anniversary Of 9/11


“The media seems to be implying as if this was the first ever macabre happening in this world and no other atrocity has been seen before. From the projection of pain and grief by media one can assume that intensity of feeling pain is measured on one’s place in the power systems of the world.”

(Azra Sayeed, The Macabre Face of Globalisation, September 2001)

This “post-September 11″ world which we talk so much about is about to commemorate its first anniversary. What has changed since Pakistani academic/activist Azra Sayeed wrote these words?

In the USA, the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of family members of September 11 victims have stood resolutely against the “war on terror”. After visiting Afghanistan earlier this year, meeting families of Afghanis killed in the US attacks, Kristina Olsen, whose sister Laurie was on American Airlines Flight 11 said: “Now I know what people in other countries feel. We were so comfortable and sheltered. Around the world people die horrible deaths on a continual basis, and it’s routine.”

The US Administration has chosen September 11 2002 to launch its National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. This programme will fingerprint and photograph visitors from Middle Eastern and Muslim countries entering the USA.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced: “The visitors will be selected according to intelligence criteria reflecting patterns of terrorist organizations’ activities.” Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria have all been named as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, so all visitors from these countries are likely to be fingerprinted and photographed.

Across the world the Stars and Stripes are unfurling once again (if they ever got folded and put away). I saw them in the Philippines earlier this month, as the joint US-Philippine military exercise Balikatan 2002-01 perpetrated human rights abuses against the mainly Muslim Moro communities in the South. Colin Powell swept into Manila to give the Arroyo government a pat on the head and to hand over US $55 million for the “war on terror”.

In New Zealand we are served daily reminders of the upcoming anniversary in the far-off cities of New York and Washington, with local events to mark the day also planned. In Christchurch, where I live, seven steel girders salvaged from the rubble of the WTC are to form the basis of an art work to be unveiled in October. “This steel is sacrosanct, it is really precious stuff and we’re very lucky to get some of it,” says a Christchurch firefighter, Murray Jamieson. Three New York firefighters who worked on the scene of the WTC are also coming here on a speaking tour.

As the US administration plans to attack Iraq once more, while the war on Afghanistan continues, and as the entire world is asked to remember again the heroism of New York’s firefighters, I am wondering when the courage, heroism and loss of men and women who risked their lives to save others when US bombs rained down death and destruction in Baghdad, Basra, Kabul, and Kandahar will be commemorated in the same way. Of people who dug in desperation, often with their bare hands, to find the broken, lifeless bodies of loved ones, friends and colleagues under rubble and in raging infernos. Will their sacrifices never count? Will Iraqi firefighters ever be lionised in the international media? I think we know the answer already.

Something akin to a doctrine of exclusivity of suffering, terror and victimhood of the American public has been fashioned out of the horror of the 9/11 attacks by the Bush Administration and so much of the corporate media in the US. Along with the threat of a never-ending war against “the enemy” (whoever the US unilateralists and their supporters say that is) this doctrine has been inflicted on the rest of the world so forcefully that we are supposed to unquestioningly accept any measures deemed necessary for “security”.

While Bruce Springsteen’s new CD The Rising tackles the topic of September 11 and provides the soundtrack to this anniversary, I am remembering a song which his bandmate, guitarist-turned-actor Steven Van Zandt released 18 years ago. About the US-backed kidnappings and killings in Latin America, its chorus asks “Where have you gone, desaparecido?/ I hope someone remembers your name/Where have you gone desaparecido/How can they just turn their backs to our shame?” (Desaparecido, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, from Voice of America)

As we near the first anniversary of the WTC attacks, who will sing for today’s desaparecidos in the USA itself? How many have been snatched from the streets, their homes, their workplaces and held in INS detention centres and jails for months, or deported, most of them for minor immigration matters?

How will we remember the way in which the US Department of Justice singled out 5000 Muslim immigrants, mainly of South Asian or Arab origin for arrest although they make up only a fraction of the 320000 people who violated deportation orders. How will we remember the fact that so many people have been detained incommunicado, denied calls to family, friends or lawyers, while their loved ones are unable to establish where they are held?

Will we remember Pakistani-born Canadian Dr Shakir Baloch, deported back to Canada after seven months jail, five of them in solitary confinement, accompanied by physical and verbal abuse and threats, harassment, with his family unaware of his whereabouts for weeks? After being detained in Queens, New York on September 22 after a roundup of Muslim men, Dr Baloch was detained without charges for three months until authorities charged him with illegally entering the USA.

What about Qaiser Rafiq, a green card holder also born in Pakistan, and a former Wall Street computer specialist? After failing to prove that he was connected with terrorists he is being held in prison on a charge of larceny in the second degree after a business deal turned sour. Labelled a terrorist, prison guards encouraged other inmates to seriously assault him. His bail has been set at US $1 million. A recent Village Voice article points out that this is outrageously high.

“To place this in perspective, consider other recent cases: Veronica Jefferson of Boston, accused of murdering her landlord, got bail of $100,000. Chante Mallard of Fort Worth, charged with murdering a homeless man, received bail of $250,000. And Juan Carlos Diaz of Miami, alleged to have stalked and groped Gloria Estefan, had bail set at $10,000.”

What of Muhammad Rafiq Butt who died in the Hudson County jail in New Jersey last October after being detained, without charge by the FBI. After an autopsy had been carried out in Pakistan, his cousin, Aziz Butt said that he had been tortured by US prison authorities. “They have surpassed our police, which is blamed for custodial and extra-judicial killings. Of course it was a murder. They have killed him without any proof.”

And who remembers the suffering of countless undocumented immigrant workers killed in the WTC attacks or made jobless, and their families, unable to claim any of the relief given to other New York victims’ families?

So this is “Enduring Freedom”. Detention without charge. Disappearances. Torture. A climate of fear, hatred, ignorance and suspicion whipped up and maintained by media and political elites. The sanitisation, legitimation and proliferation of racist profiling practices.

In sickening rituals of obeisance to the USA, many countries continue to implement their own variants of Patriot Acts and Patriot Games.

Yet throughout the West, the detention of immigrants, immigration restrictions, the low-intensity warfare against many communities of colour and the anti-Muslim flavour of this practice goes back long before September 11. From Nauru to Nebraska, private security corporations are making big bucks from rising numbers of immigrant detentions.

How can we understand or meaningfully campaign on the erosion of “civil liberties” without acknowledging that for many communities, such rights have always been tenuous at best, and often totally mythical? Subhash Kateel, organiser with the De-Detention campaign in the Jackson Heights, New York-based DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), a grassroots South Asian community organization says : “It is important for people to understand now that what is happening is based on the development of apartheid through immigration policies that distinguish citizens from both legal and illegal noncitizens.”

Arnoldo Garcia, of the US National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says: “What is unchanged since September 11 is that immigrant communities are still being left out of the picture – except when it comes to attributing blame.”

Alongside the climate of suspicion generated against many communities living in the West – especially Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian that has been reinvigorated by the 9/11 attacks, comes an insidious view which essentially sees victims of hatecrimes, detentions or other forms of injustice as somehow contributing to their treatment. It resembles the way in which many judges and lawyers have accused victims of rape and sexual violence of contributory negligence – of “asking for it” by the way they dressed, the places they went or their perceived behaviour.

In progressive circles, some argue that “we” on the left must be careful what we say and do out of respect and sensitivity for the victims of September 11, and/or because of the equation of opposition to corporate globalisation with support for “terrorism”. Many in the “anti-globalisation” movement have expressed concern and outrage about new so-called antiterrorist legislation and the criminalisation of dissent and see themselves as likely targets. But with some exceptions, few in this white-dominated movement have given more than cursory attention to immigration injustices and attacks on communities of colour.

War, imperialism, racism, unjust immigration policies, and the unequal values placed on human life depending on “one’s place in the power systems of the world” have long been tenets of these societies.

As September 11 continues to be used as a pretext for wars at home and abroad, to consolidate the political and economic hegemony of the US and other major economic powers, it is important to reaffirm that the world did not begin on that date. Appalling as the suffering and tragedy of that day was, its use to trivialise, demean or even legitimise the suffering of others – victims of the “war at home” and victims of US foreign and economic policy overseas – is indefensible.

In May, Shakir Baloch, Subhash Kateel and I all spoke at a conference against war racism and imperialism in Montreal’s Concordia university. There, some clear links were made between movements against corporate globalisation, struggles against unjust immigration and security laws in a number of countries, peoples’ struggles for justice in South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, and movements for self-determination of indigenous and colonised peoples in the North and South.

Now that many activists talk about a “global justice” movement, rather than an “anti-globalisation” one, we need to make these issues as central a concern as the fight against neoliberalism has been. We cannot reframe our strategies in the light of September 11 if we do not act in genuine solidarity with the organising work taking place in communities that are bearing the brunt of the war at home.

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