It was last week when I was watching Star Trek and received a text from a good friend telling me that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. I remember exchanging text messages back and forth with her and eventually telling her that all I wanted to do that night was watch Star Trek. When I thought about Osama again before going to sleep that night, I remembered what my grandfather had said years ago when my family and I were shopping in a textile store in Malaysia. He said “Kesian Osama. Aku betul betul kesiankan die” (English translation: Pity Osama. I really really pity him.)
I’m not sure why I keep thinking about those words everytime I read more news on Osama’s death. At the time, I thought it was strange since I had been taught (in school, from the news, from people around me) that Osama was an evil man who killed lots of people. I would have imagined that me back then being really happy about Osama’s death but the me today is more cautious and contemplative.
People still seem to be reeling from his death - what has been called “one of the most important events of the century”. Over the past week, news have broken out over people’s reactions on his death (including coverage on celebrations, mournings, frustrations etc). I’ve only seen and read a couple of reactions and have heard about a couple more. For those privileged few in the West, who can choose to ignore the “War on Terrorism”, this death is just another blimp on the news radar. I met a friend for tea recently and not once did we talk about Osama’s death. Life goes on. Sure we recognize its importance but we don’t feel its reverberations until something major happens to us or to someone we know as a direct result of Osama’s death. Only then do we wake up and notice. I can’t say I’m fully exempt from this sentiment but I would be lying if I said his death did not affect me at all. To me, Osama’s death means more fear. More violence. More threats of violence and thus, more uncertainty. I’m not just saying this because I fear for myself as a Muslim woman planning to continue living in the West but also because his death might bring more violence from either “side” of this ludicrous, wasteful, dehumanizing war onto more lives. It could be the threat of the next attack on American or Western soil or the threat of silent hatred when a woman wearing a burqa steps onto a public train in France.
Either way, I do not see an end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not see an end to the war on Islam, on Muslims, on Muslim women. I do not see an end to hatred – festering just below the surface of the next interaction you will have with a friend. Call me pessimistic but Osama’s symbolic significance as America’s scapegoat is done. He is dead. But America or the world will find someone else to scapegoat. And maybe that is what my grandfather meant when he said he pitied Osama. Maybe he pitied how Osama has been scapegoated, villainized to the point of dehumanization. Maybe he was expressing a sentiment that many Muslims felt but could not safely express – we pity our fellow Muslim brother, demonized, wronged and doing wrong, dragging the rest of the Muslim world into the mud with him. Would you not pity another human being, so dehumanized, that his death is celebrated? Or is pity only extended to certain forms of life and not others?
Me? I pity the state of this world. Torn apart to the point where even children, the future generations, are taught to learn hate – towards a person, a religion, an enemy created from the mistakes of nations and the misforgivings of histories.
The world has always been an uncertain place. You could die from a car accident crossing the street today. An airplane might malfunction mid-air and crash into your house tomorrow. An earthquake could hit Vancouver the following day. Any number of things could happen to strip you away from the life you recognize. But instead of making life a bit better for everyone while we still have it, world leaders seem intent on making everyone’s lives harder for their own benefit. For more money or more glamour or to gain trust from the citizens of their countries.
Osama bin Laden’s death is a reminder of our mortality. It is a reminder of the precariousness of life. I was harshly reminded of this when the tsunami hit Japan two months ago. I found myself panicking at the thought of my father losing his job at the Japanese company he has worked in for over 20 years. It was a reminder that the privileged life I led here in Vancouver was nicely nestled on the safety net of my father’s job. The life my family had depended on his job which depended on his company’s functions which depended on the functioning Japanese economy. Bin Laden’s death reminds me yet again to never underestimate how precarious life can be. To never discount repercussions of a single event.
In a time when people are constantly reminded of their mortality, they tend to run back to what they (think they) know. They hold onto teachings from the past - what they have been taught is “right” from a young age, “ideals” of what life should be like. It happened in the 1950s with the threat of the Cold War and it’s happening again today. People are stubbornly refusing to look to new ways of resolving issues instead favoring a nostalgia of the “good ol’ days” when white men were clearly at the top, white women shut up and stayed in the kitchen and everyone else was less than human. Perhaps this explains the resurgent white supremacy movements in the West, anti-immigrant sentiments, arguments invoking “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism”, the backlash against feminism and maybe even this trend in popular culture of films and television to re-create old movies, comics and TV series.
The world is in desperate need of a makeover – a full mind and body makeover. But that’s not going to happen as long as people are (conciously or unconciously) fearing for their lives every single day. There are groups fighting against this sentiment, trying to make the world see in a different way but these groups are themselves, affected by this fear. Fearing a loss of privilege. A loss of love, money, friends, family. It is actually pretty remarkable that anyone is able to exist fully right now – having to live with constant fear at the back of our minds. Yes, we distract ourselves with money, with things, with objects. We convince ourselves that accumulating wealth will allow us to escape this harsh world, that accumulating objects would make our lives easier or guarantee more security. But deep down, we know it is all a farce. Deep down, we know something is wrong with this world that we are barely living in right now. Something is wrong and our guts know it. We grow older faster, we desperately seek out love and intimacy in the wrong places, we subscribe to warped ideas of wealth and of success…
I will say one last thing: All it takes is one choice. One decision you can make. You have the choice to continue on this bandwagon you know is going to fall off the edge of the Earth in the foreseeable future or you can jump off and find others who have jumped off as well. This will be a difficult choice to make – both in terms of reaching the point of choosing and then, eventually having to make the choice. If you decide to jump and you’re lucky, you might be able to jump off with one or two loved ones. But you would be leaving what you know behind, all that you have worked for, all that you have achieved in your life…behind in the bandwagon. And once you jump off, life won’t be easy. You’ll constantly have to fight to be heard, constantly be called names you don’t identify with, constantly be misunderstood and maybe even demonized. You’ll be constantly tired and feel undervalued and so will others around you. You will cry at the stubborness of those who refuse to jump off as you try to understand why they do not seem able to make the choice you made. You will question yourself and your decision and yearn to climb back onto the bandwagon because life there seems easier, distracted by shiny objects and green paper rather than worrying about the future of your generation. But you will not climb back. You will never climb back because you know life on the bandwagon is an illusion. Because no matter how difficult life is off the bandwagon, you know, deep down, that you are working for something larger than yourself. That you will be a part of a new world that you helped create, no matter how small your contribution. That if death arrived on your door, you could say that you tried your best to make the world just a bit better for everyone.
But it is a choice. A choice that many do not get to make. So when you find yourself questioning if you should jump off the bandwagon and take a risk or stay nestled in what you know until you fall off the edge, choose wisely. Because you’ll not only be choosing for yourself. You’ll be choosing for your loved ones and for the world.