Every major war alters the human consciousness. Overwhelming images of terror and destruction punctuated by a few moments of heroism and glory are captured by that generation in a few words and passed on to the next. Words are magical; they are the last guard rails from an abyss of experiential turmoil and provide pretence of understanding which makes the overwhelming experiences tolerable.
Second World War encapsulated the human experience in Hiroshima and D-Day; the depth of the human experiences enshrined in those words will fade as they are eclipsed by new words from new wars.
For a long time nine-one-one (911) was a popular TV series and the emergency phone numbers in the Americas. With the war on terror, nine-eleven, written as 9/11 has acquired a new meaning, with the image of two crumbling towers and the sense of terror associated with it. It is a date with no year attached to it; it cannot be consigned to a historic time line. The same system for human would have made aged pension funds rich and the birthday cake makers extinct.
The war on terror has also coined a new usage, “home land”. It used to be motherland in the east, symbolizing the nurturing and sustenance aspect of motherhood while for the Russians and Germans it was the fatherland with the ordering and guiding emphasis. Now it has become the neutral homeland, to be secured and protected from the marauding terrorists, not from outside in a physical sense, but from the outsiders to a value system. “Why do they hate us?” Is the intractable question, answer is in its own substrate.
The new war, usually called the war on terror, is also called sub-conventional war, the enemy is every where, it is also no where. The enemy is the value system, an entity hard to detect, with clues of its existence in the subtle actions of individual, a few words here and there, always camouflaged in the mundane and the banal.
In this new paradigm, every day life is a war, every human interaction is a battle, and every sensory influx is a potential terrorist scent. “Be alert, not alarmed” is the exhortation from the leaders. I take this very seriously. I have a lot to lose. Insurance covers my life and assets, but don’t want to miss out on the booming share values. I am valued more as dead than alive, a quirk of actuarial science, but that is no reason to ignore the new war and become a number. I am alert, very very alert.
It was a Sunday evening, the freeway was flowing smoothly with the weekend crowd and on a straight long stretch, I saw a car parked on the emergency lane. I made out its silhouette in the setting sun, an old Maruti; I used to have one like that. A teenager was thumbing for a lift, to get as far away from the car, every one ignored him. I was alert and on a war footing, why would he want to get away from his own car, should be car bomb, primed to go off. I slowed down past the car, he did not ask for help. I pulled into the emergency lane, didn’t want the suspect to escape before I could get some details. The world owes every one five minutes of fame; it could be an hour for me if this guy is really a bomber. I didn’t want to loose the opportunity to show case my alertness, alarmed or not.
He got into my car, he had run out of gas, and wanted to be dropped at the nearest gas station. I cursed myself for not buying the Nokia 534; it would have captured it all on a video clip how the suspect was trapped in my car. Guest on TV interviews, and front row seat on the next 9/11 anniversary flashed past. I looked at him sternly; it was a long stare, a long exposure shot to the digital brain memory. The image processor of my memory has long been eroded by the abstractions of engineering. I thought of the police line up and my confusion when all the white people look alike, having never seen them when I was young. Early imprints and image recognition are closely linked.
Terrorists work in teams, the vision of him taking off into a terror homeland, having picked up from the gas station by his associate was a risk I could not even contemplate. I insisted that I take him back to his car to deny him an escape route. I helped him put the empty can into the boot; just to make sure he has no bomb hidden in it.
“Thank you very much sir, for your help, you have been extremely kind” he said as he drove off into the darkness. Little did he know it was he who helped me to have a good night’s sleep, to see another dawn of rising share values? He was not a terrorist, just a teenager with an old car with a faulty fuel gage. I thought of my teenage son.
The new war cry of “be alert, not alarmed”, is of a different kind from Hiroshima. It is the re-discovery of an ancient human condition, over run by the down loaded music in i-pods, chatters on the cell phones, Bose music in cars and submerged by single minded pursuits. The new cry is a reflection of the present human condition of selfish individuality, and ultimately a war of liberation from I, me and myself.
To the ancient man, to be alert was a matter of survival, to escape from the predators, to help the needy, to jointly find sustenance in a threatening unknown world. There were no word in those days, to be alert was innate, and it needed no exhortation from the clan leaders. Now we have recurring reminders to be alert, to be passed to the next generation as the legacy of a war on terror, to alter the consciousness, to the essence of being human.