| September 11, 2006, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington
I write this from the small New England town of New Haven, just seventy miles from New York, and I write this on 12th September, a day after the fifth anniversary of the earth-shattering — and history-defining — events that we have come to know as ‘9/11’. Last evening, on the plaza that lies outside the town’s loveliest modern building — Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books Library — a group of students gathered to mark the occasion. The commemoration was organized on bi-partisan lines, being co-sponsored by the Yale College Democrats and the Yale College Republicans. Both groups, in turn, are part of a campus initiative known as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy.
This foundation’s main activity is to send some forty students each year to Israel, to learn from a society that has been “fighting Islamic terror longer than anyone else” how to better defend America and Americans. The function to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was intended, in the words of the foundation’s vice-president, to “ensure that students and the larger groups of folks on campus understand the nature of the threat and will not become complacent”. Speaking on the occasion, a student who had recently returned from Israel asked the audience to “rededicate ourselves to the preservation of freedom and hope for all humankind”.
This student, alas, is too young to remember the events of another 9/11, when it was America which acted not to defend but to destroy democracy, not to preserve freedom but to extinguish it. For it was on September 11, 1973, that the Chilean Army, encouraged and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, attacked the Presidential Palace and killed the democratically elected incumbent, the socialist Salvador Allende. It took two decades for democracy to return to Chile.
When the towers of the World Trade Center came down on September 11, 2001, some left-wing critics with long memories recalled the events of that other 9/11 that happened 28 years ago. They pointed out that the country attacked on this day in 2001 had itself orchestrated an attack on another country on that very day in 1973. America’s sense of outrage was thus sought to be put in context, or perhaps diminished. The defenders of national sovereignty, it was suggested, had in the past themselves undermined the sovereignty of other nations, the promoters of democracy at home themselves undermined democracy in other lands.
The events of September 11, 2001, made some grimly recall the events of September 11, 1973. But it is only in this past week that we have been reminded of yet another 9/11, whose centenary was observed this past Monday, in many towns and cities in India and South Africa, but not (so far as one can tell) anywhere in the United States of America. That day, September 11, 1906, was when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi decided that he would launch a non-violent protest movement against the restrictions imposed by the government of the Transvaal on the Asian immigrants in the colony.
The Transvaal government had proposed that Asian immigration be brought to an end, and those already in the colony be made to carry a photo ID as well as — in a curiously contemporary resonance — be finger-printed by the authorities. The resistance to the move was led by Gandhi, who, some years previously, had begun his move from the law to social activism, and was a figure of considerable authority in the immigrant community. He made the announcement of this, his first satyagraha, in the high-domed hall of the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. Speaking to an audience of some three thousand people — described by his biographer, Louis Fischer, as being composed of “rich merchants, miners, lawyers, indentured labourers, waiters, ricksha boys, domestic servants, hucksters and poor shopkeepers” — Gandhi urged them to resist the new ordinance, and to resist it “till we succeed”. He warned them of the hardships along the way. “It is quite possible,” he remarked, “that some of those who pledge themselves may weaken at the very first trial.” For “we may have to remain hungry and suffer from extreme heat and cold. Hard labour is likely to be imposed upon us in prison. We may even be flogged by the warders.” Gandhi still urged his colleagues to join him “in pledging ourselves, knowing full well that we shall have to suffer things like these”. The leader was clear that the “struggle will be prolonged”. But, “provided the entire community manfully stands the test”, he foresaw that “there can only be one end to the struggle, and that is victory”.
One is tempted to compare these exhortations to those known to be used by George W. Bush and presumed to be used by Osama bin Laden. For those leaders have likewise urged their men to stay resolute and focused, be prepared to endure hardships, and be willing to sacrifice limb and (if need be) life for the cause. They tell their followers, as Gandhi did, that “the struggle will be prolonged”. And they likewise assure them that if they can stay the course, “there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory”.
Scanning the World Wide Web for reports on the commemoration of the original 9/11, that is, of Gandhi’s announcement of the beginnings of satyagraha in 1906, I found, as one tends to do on such occasions, reports of commemorations that were farcical or opportunistic. Among the first kind was a report that a World Peace Gong had been inaugurated in New Delhi. Among the second kind was a report that the Congress had asked its members to rededicate themselves to the ideals of satyagraha (as if they ever believed in them in the first place — the gap that separates the Congress of today from the Congress that Gandhi led is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon).
There was also an announcement that the Indian prime minister was due to visit South Africa, in part to remember the events of September 11, 1906, but also in part — the operative part — to “have discussions with the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, on how to enhance bilateral ties, particularly in the economic field”.
The commemoration that appeared most meaningful was being planned in Johannesburg, the mother city of satyagraha, the city where those events of September 11, 1906, had actually taken place. These included a series of public lectures by scholars and students of Gandhi, as well as an exhibition featuring his prison experiences in South Africa. A panel discussion was also planned, to take place under the telling title of “The Other 9/11”.
Gandhi’s 9/11 is “other”, in meaning and intent, to both the later 9/11s mentioned in this column. The attack by al Qaida on those buildings in New York was indefensible. This was an act of war committed in and against America, aimed at innocent civilians. But America’s engineering of the 1973 coup was (and is) indefensible as well. So too is the war now being waged in Iraq. Where Osama bin Laden and George Bush both depart from the Mahatma is in demanding that their followers take other (innocent) people’s lives and limbs in the process of sacrificing their own. While Gandhi asked that the resistance to unjust authority, as well as the affirmation of justly held authority, be exercised by means that, even if they could not wholly eschew violence, ceaslessly sought to limit its use and application.