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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View
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17 September, 2001

HELPLESSLY HOPING

I feel inadequate trying to write about last week's unspeakable attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So much has already been said and written, and no mere words can truly capture the horror of the tragedy or the scale of human loss.

I've been in those buildings that no longer spike into the skies above lower Manhattan.
I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the victims or their families. I feel especially saddened as I hear the stories of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mother and fathers looking for a loved one with those forlorn little posters with the victim's name and photograph, and tears well up in my eyes constantly. One company founder's tale of loss - 700 employees were missing on an upper floor of the World Trade Center, and he survived only because he had taken a detour to take his son to his first day of school - was overwhelmingly sad because of his evident pain and sorrow. Although I want to be there to help clear the rubble and lift the crumbled concrete and twisted steel with my hands, I am thousands of miles away and can only weep and hope for the best.

I feel helpless.

I watch the continuing television news coverage and see over and over again the now too-familiar footage, but I watch them without the sense of profound shock I felt the first time I saw them. I want the networks to keep covering the story (I have an inescapable urge to keep up with every new revelation and the progress of the rescue and recovery efforts), but I do wish they'd stop showing those images from last Tuesday. They're already seared into my memory - I don't need any help to recall every detail of the flames, explosions and collapse.

I can't try to say anything "profound" about the attacks without feeling trite and trivial, so I can only turn to my own life, and pay closer attention to the little things we can do to value life, and to try to make the world a better place by example.

One is to keep an open mind and be tolerant of others. The day after the attacks on cable television's "700 Club," a Christian "family" network, Reverend Jerry Falwell and the show's host Pat Robertson agreed that gays, lesbians, feminists, "pagans," and a host of liberal advocacy groups have made "God mad" and must share the blame for the terrorist attacks. We don't need such intolerance at a time like this. Such an attitude leads to hatred.

The most distressing news coming out of the attacks, of course, is the need within the mainstream American consciousness for revenge. But it's one thing to want revenge on the terrorists themselves, or the organization or country that sponsored the terrorists, and another altogether to begin exacting revenge on anyone we think looks like what we think a terrorist looks like.

There were news stories as early as the day after the bombings of blind rage leading to racially-motivated threats against Muslim mosques and organizations that represent people of Middle Eastern origin. There have been an attack on a Moroccan gas station attendant in Palos Heights, Ill.; an attempt to run over a Pakistani woman in a parking lot in Huntington, N.Y.; and the arrest of an armed man who allegedly tried to set fire to a Seattle mosque.

President Bush and other national authorities, including New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have urged people not to react on race or religion, but some people are simply not able to make any distinctions between a far-right Islamic faction's religious zealotry, and anyone who might be Muslim or from the Middle East.

People blinded by hate apparently can't even distinguish between people from the Middle East and Asia. By the end of the week, I had received an e-mail from a woman in Denver about a 12-year-old who had been brutally beaten and hospitalized because his attackers thought he was an Arab. The boy is Indian. Because of their dark skin (and because Sikhs in India wear turbans, which are mis-identified with all Middle Easterners), South Asians are being threatened along with anyone of Middle Eastern heritage.

In Mesa Arizona over the weekend, a man was arrested and charged with shooting at two gas stations and a home. The home was where a man of Afghani descent lived, and the gas stations were operated by a Lebanese man and an Indian immigrant. The man from India was killed. Authorities have yet to determine if the shootings were racially motivated and prompted by the terrorist attacks, but the distinct possibility is ominous. The Japanese American community nationally has rallied and spoken out against such individual actions, because they echo too closely the hatred and bigotry that led in the weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment of 120,000 JAs during World War II.

JAs around the country have also been flinching at the constant references to Pearl Harbor as the only comparison that could be made for these attacks. More thoughtful media and officials have cautioned that the comparison is only valid at the most obvious level - that both attacks took the US by surprise. It's important to remember that the bombing on December 7, 1941 was on a military target and that although caught off-guard, we knew who had conducted the attack and could retaliate appropriately. If the attack last week had been isolated to the Pentagon, the country would have rallied as it has, but the sense of loss would not be as painful without the deaths in New York.

I've been in those buildings that no longer spike into the skies above lower Manhattan. I've felt the winds making the tops of those towers sway. I can't believe they're gone. I have friends and acquaintances in New York (and in Washington, DC) and am glad none of them were hurt or otherwise involved in this tragedy.

In the office where I work, our employees have roots in many heritages. Our families have come from France, Togo in west Africa, Japan, Sweden, Israel, India, Italy and even Oklahoma, USA. We printed out the flags of the UN and the US. I taped them, along with ones for Japan and a peace sign, on my window for passersby as they drive along the street below.

I had lunch last week at a nearby convenience store that is operated by Muslims from Indonesia (it may surprise some people to know that Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world) just so I could have their delicious gyros for lunch and to ask if they had felt any backlash. They hadn't yet, though they were nervous that they might. "Muslims would not do that," said one man as he waved at the TV airing the nonstop news coverage. "Those are extreme people, not all Muslims are like that." I agreed, and wished them well.

Such a terrible attack on the US should never happen again. But remember, neither should such a terrible mistake like the internment. We need to learn about the Muslim religion and understand that individuals, not an entire people, committed this heinous crime. For now, I'm helplessly hoping for the future.

 


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