NY’s reaction to Osama’s death: The other side of extremism

Published: May 24, 2011

It’s difficult to talk without the invective, without the bitterness, when you have been truly wronged.

Growing up in Lahore, the monsoon was my favourite season – those muggy, motionless afternoons when the air suddenly exploded into a river of orange rumbling down from the sky, leaving jungles in its wake.

In the Bay Area, every balmy day of the year was beautiful except for the miserable characterless spluttering they called “rain.”

In Ithaca, my favourite season was Autumn – a fire dance in the sky, bold and blazing, curling flames at your feet.

And, in New York, it has to be spring, the teenage of nature, blooming poetry from every stem, every lilting branch a breathtaking ballet of pink and white to melt the numbest of hearts.

On such a blossomy New York morning recently, my colleague Ryan and I were at Ground Zero, jostling through hundreds of New Yorkers and out-of-towners to catch a glimpse of President Obama as he arrived to lay a wreath at the September 11th Memorial Site, giving symbolic “closure” to the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks following Osama bin Laden’s death.

We didn’t see him, not even a fluttering hand through a darkened car window. But Obama became irrelevant once we actually started talking to people and recording their reactions to the news.

The reactions were predictable.

One African-American woman beamed with pride that Obama had been in office “to do this urgent and important duty”.

A man who had lost four friends in 9/11 said he felt a sense of “relief” and “joy” beyond words.

A young Latino-American who had recently joined the New York National Guard said that Osama’s death was a source of “unity” for the people of New York, that it showed “how Americans come, in all shapes and forms, whatever nationality you are, whatever colour you are, you come as one.”

But what was unpredictable was these people’s – these ordinary, middle-class, tax-paying people’s – calm acceptance of the fact that yes, this “war” was “not going to end with the death of one person,” and, more disturbingly, that it needed to go on, that it should go on. In the words of one 67-year old ex-Marine, “we have to be there in all of these countries to assist… so we can crush these people when they come in to try and hurt us. It’s not over.”

While Ryan asked the questions and I filmed behind the camera, I thought about the questions I would have liked to ask these people:

But do you know the real victims of your country’s fallacious war?

Do you know who actually pays the price?

What do you have to say to the families of the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan because of this war?

Were their lives less valuable than the 3,000 Americans who died here 10 years ago?

Do you not see that what you’re calling ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ is decimating entire societies, entire nations as we speak?

I said nothing of the sort. I was a journalist, and Pakistani on top of that, and the last thing I wanted to do in that sort of crowd was get into an argument.

Turned out, somebody else was there to do it for me – a lanky, bespectacled and very articulate white dude by the name of Sander Hicks, founder of the Truth Party, a grassroots political group that believes in exposing, among other things, that 9/11 was a hoax. Wearing a black T-shirt with the words “9/11 Is A  [email protected]#$%^& Lie!” emblazoned on the front,  Hicks shouted maniacally but fearlessly to the crowd:

“Why am I here? Am I here to celebrate and validate a murder? Without a trial, without due process? Or am I here to think about what is really happening in our country? Do we justify war and torture based on 10 years of lies? I say no! And I don’t care if there’s a million people here saying I’m an [email protected]#$%^&, just for standing up for peace and truth!”

I’m still surprised that he got away with saying that, and a lot more, without even a scratch, though there were several jingos in the crowd who would’ve liked nothing better than give the provocative Hicks a square punch in the jaw. But shouting back curses was about as far as they let their anger go.

Then, in the middle of the fray, a red-faced, white-moustached little man broke in.  Wearing a black leather jacket covered in Vietnam insignia, he cried in a thick Texan drawl:

“You know what I would’ve done if I were president when 9/11 happened? I would’ve nuked the entire Middle East, starting with Mecca!”

So far that day, I had been watching and listening to everybody almost in the third person, a perfectly neutral body. But at those words, I felt my heart plummet like it would at a vertical drop on a Seven Flags rollercoaster, and a row of goosebumps shot up my spine as if I were suddenly caught in an Arctic gale wearing a T-shirt.  I looked up from the camera. My eyes stung; I thought I was going to cry.

It was pure reflex. Something essential and sacrosanct, seeded deep in my soul, had been momentarily convulsed, and at that moment I could’ve clawed out the old geezer’s eyes.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd, and people were quick to admonish:

“No, no, that’s crazy!”

“Not all Muslims are bad!”

Clearly, the guy was a loony, and it would’ve been stupid to take anything he said seriously. But his words stayed with me long after his black leather jacket disappeared into New York’s hubbub of loonies, and I thought:

“So this is how it feels – to be on the ‘other side’ of extremism?”

We’ve had plenty of loonies from our part of the world dispense similar tirades about the West, about the US, Europe or Israel – and God knows I’m not a fan of those parts of the world or their foreign policies. But, to an ordinary citizen, who has as little control over what their government does as we do over ours, how would it feel, to be so sweepingly abused, to hear people talk about obliterating our very existence, burning flags and defacing temples as if it would have no consequences, as if it would offend or incite nobody; even for someone like me, deeply suspect of nationalism and all other -isms in general?

I admit that it would hurt – that it does hurt.

It’s complicated. It’s complicated when imperialism is involved, when capitalism and neo-colonialism is involved, when there is a legitimate anger and resentment and struggle for justice, like in Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s difficult to talk without the invective, without the bitterness, when you have been truly wronged; but all I can say is, let’s let humanity win.

That’s all we have, to keep us alive and save us from total catastrophe. At the end of the day, it’s the ordinary citizen’s sympathies and conscience that we can appeal to, we can touch; it’s their ordinary humanity that we can depend on, not any politician’s or government’s. Let’s not sacrifice that, no matter which ‘side’ we come from.

This post was originally published here.


Manal Khan

A freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain, who loves old cities, tall trees, dark chocolate, and being inspired. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and a Lahore native. Manal blogs at "Windswept Words" (manalkhan.wordpress.com)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • parvez

    It looks like you have written this more for yourself than to express a point of view.
    It appears you have two forces pulling in different directions inside of you. One propelled by your heart the other by your brain. Its a tough call.Recommend

  • M Ali Khan

    and that’s the reason why ‘popular sentiment’ is often ludicrous nonsense based on emotional sentiment and ‘mob mentality’ rather than rational thinking and analysis.

    same goes for Pakistan and all our ‘brotherly’ Muslim countries that go crazy on emotional rhetoric. same goes for the bigots in the West who think it is their ‘duty’ to teach the whole world how to live.Recommend

  • Awais

    Great article .. I have come across a lot of comments online suggesting to nuke all our people to make world a better place. Its sad. It all made me understand that misunderstanding was just another word for hate.Recommend

  • MM

    Kudos Manal… have been following your sporadic discourses for a while now.. i wish i could articulate perspective this well… keep the cause alive girl… and lets hope “ordinary humanity” prevails.Recommend

  • fatima

    well in my opinion they are still better human beings than us.As you mentioned “hicks incidence” that nobody harmed him a bit.well that is something really great and non existence in Pakistan.If he were in Pakistan he would have been killed on the spot and his death would have been celebrated all across the country.moreover when the black jacketed guy spoke something against Muslims others corrected him and din’t said “labaik” to his voice as people in Pakistan do by cursing all Americans and all Jews etc.Apart from using sentimental words i do not think this article was very convincingRecommend

  • Fahad Raza

    An excellent insight of the death celebrations. My hats off to you. Manal. Recommend

  • http://habloid.wordpress.com Habiba Younis

    great post!
    The day i surfed different forums after OBL’s death, the hated filled remarks directed at all of us, u and me who have nothing to with terrorism stung quite badly. Recommend

  • ashok sai

    Tinge of guiltiness and fear of survival !!!Recommend

  • Burhan

    The reaction of these people are the same as if india attacks pakistani and our emotional patriotic Pakistani’s stand up and say whatever comes in their minds against india no matter they say something against their religion or against india…its nothing unusualRecommend

  • http://tightdhoti.wordpress.com TightDhoti

    Well to be fair when 9/11 happen people were celebrating in Pakistan. None the less, War has become a spectator sport, in the 24/7 news cycle, war is potrayed as an extended sport or video game. Hypernationalism combined with mass rhetoric leads to this adolescent reaction. Then again these 20 somethings celebratin in NY were probably in their late teens when 9/11 happened. They were brought up on a health diet of fear, and this is the reaction. Recommend

  • Asad

    Thanks for writinig this piece Manal. Unfortunately its a fact that the non muslims are more extremist and hateful of the muslims than the muslims are.

    Among the muslims the extremists are a small minority, but among the non muslims of the west, most of them hate Islam and Practicing muslims, just because of the wrong actions of a few. Things have also been made worse by the western media. If IRA kills people with a bomb, its a small news line on the 4th or 5th page of the papers. If a muslim ‘suspect’ is caught in a raid with extremist material in their home, thats a Headline on the front page and the news is repeated the whole week.

    If you pray in the office and your Manager sees you praying, you job will end soon. If you go to an official party and do not drink, you notice the uneasiness of your colleagues and they start ignoring you in conversations….Recommend

  • ASQ

    world is always going to be a cruel place to live.the policies of 80’s has brought the world to this place and as always the people who make policies with long term consequences go scot free while innocent suffer.Recommend

  • MJ

    @Habiba Younis:
    What about the hate filled remarks and statements Pakistani’s make against the west? Does our being Muslims absolve us of all responsibility for our comments and actions? My point is that there is always two sides to a story…..Recommend

  • http://about.me/saqibawan/ Saqib Awan

    “I’ve spent so much time thinking about repairing damage done by people I’ve grown to hate, that I’m finally realizing I may have become one of them!”Recommend

  • Pradeep

    India does not have a religion. Only individual Indians have religion.Recommend

  • VGM

    Most of the world celebrated with the Americans!!! Just as must of the world grieved with them on 9/11 … And rightly so!!! Recommend

  • abhinav

    Very balanced piece, narrating the events as is.
    From the comments you can see how people can make different opinion based on same events. How Fatima’s take on the event is different from Asad’s.Recommend

  • Kevin

    America’s clumsy, too slow, careless, illconceived, and too costly reaction to 9/11 has made many around the world resent our goverment, military, etc. The FBI, in a foolish misadventure, made my life seem like it was happening in the former East Germany. They made me hate my family and friends, and come to accept that hatred as being reasonable and something that won’t go away any time soon. So even I might say, any enemy of theirs is a friend of mine. Even so, even for an American who has been made to hate his family, his associates, his country but most of all his goverment…
    Nothing will equal deliberately murdering 3000 people in one day.Recommend