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Maximum city, not infinite justice—A Commentary by Darryl Li ’09

The following commentary was published in the Indian Express on December 3, 2008.

Maximum city, not infinite justice
By Darryl Li ’09

Since the atrocities in Mumbai, we have heard much about India’s “own 9/11,” a phrase common to most highly mediatised spectacles of non-state violence these days. But what does it mean to have one’s “own 9/11?” In raising this question, I do not suggest that the suffering Americans and others experienced on September 11, 2001 is uniquely important or incomparable. Indeed, that such a clarification could even be necessary is exactly the problem with what that shorthand has come to stand for.

One can of course compare aspects of the two events, such as the indications that the assailants targeted Americans, Britons, and Israelis in the name of Islam, or the asymmetry between the well-coordinated attackers and the (s)lumbering state leviathan. But the same could be said of many other crimes around the world before and after September 2001.

So what is at stake in going beyond mere comparison and speaking of one’s “own” 9/11? Let us start with the original event.

Of course we can recall the extraordinary heroism of that day, as when the firefighters and rescue workers charged into the crumbling Twin Towers. And as the American scholar Elaine Scarry has reminded us, we have the example of the ordinary citizens on hijacked United Flight 93 who resolved — rapidly, democratically, courageously — to seize control of their aircraft with the knowledge that it would almost certainly lead to their collective deaths.

And of course there have been the enduring structural legacies: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the global archipelago of torture centres based on arbitrary detention with little or no evidence (of which Guantánamo is merely the best-known), the assault on domestic civil liberties, the consolidation of a shadow police state aimed at detaining and expelling non-citizens, and renewed carte blanche for American allies and proxies worldwide to ratchet up their own repressive policies. We do not yet know which, if any, of these will be reversed by the president-elect, Barack Hussein Obama.

But India does not need to invoke 9/11, either to summon the kind of solidarity and courage found on that day, or to justify the kind of repression that followed; it is amply capable of both on its own, or of charting a completely different path.

What having one’s “own 9/11” does mean, however, is to possess an Event that somehow transcends history or context, and therefore politics or justice. In reducing so much to that single point on the calendar, too many Americans elevated it above what came before and what followed. This insistence on saturating discussion and imagination with only our own suffering came at the precise moment when what was needed most was a capacious commitment to fostering common human security based on a foundation of justice.

The initial and oxymoronic codename for the invasion of Afghanistan, Operation “Infinite Justice”, captured this mentality perfectly: infinitude promises a be-all, end-all (yet never-been and never-ending) “solution.” It cannot coexist with any meaningful notion of justice, which requires the very finite concepts of balance, responsibility, and reconciliation.

Seen in proper perspective, the enduring significance of 9/11 was that a very small part of humanity was suddenly exposed to the kind of existential vulnerability that a significantly greater proportion lives with every day — and then largely refused to recognize that commonality. Yes, there are obvious analytical and normative distinctions between different kinds of political violence in the world. But one need not accept a “moral equivalence” between state and non-state violence to recognize that an honest conversation is not possible if only one side defines whose suffering counts and whose does not.

Invoking 9/11 has too often been a way to close one’s eyes to terrors experienced elsewhere in the world, including India. Which is why for Indians or anyone else to seek possession of their “own 9/11” is strange. Rather than selectively enlarging the exclusive club of those who can blithely dismiss the fears of others, it would seem that the task demanded by human solidarity is to dismantle that privilege altogether.

Hope for an alternative may lie less with the state than with the metropolis. Governments have fomented xenophobia and consumerism, but denizens of the very cities that have experienced “9/11s” — New York, London, Madrid — have largely resisted this garrison-shopping mall mentality. And the sheer numbers in which they took to the streets against war and occupation in their name affirmed their rejection of the mindset of “infinite justice.” Bombay — thriving and flawed as it dips into the vast sea, irrepressible in every sense — is no less great a city and no less part of that common human current of solidarity. It does not need its “own” 9/11; the strength of its spirit and the breadth of its horizons are more than enough.