Prejudice – Bin Laden – Justice Served.

In Tolerance We Are safer
Part 1/4

I have lived for the past 14 years in a quiet, leafy Australian suburb perched on the edge of the CBD. The first visibly non-locals to appear on the streets a few years ago were Muslim families made distinctive by the women’s head scarves and abayas. The next group of migrants to arrive was a colourful mixed cohort of refugees from East Africa. I have to admit that, in the local shopping center, walking through the sidewalk throngs of mostly men chatting noisily in foreign languages makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I catch myself briefly longing back to the ‘old days’ when these streets were far less exotic and, lost in my thoughts, I could just walk straight ahead on automatic pilot.

Of course, I am questioning the source of my unease! Surely, it does not simply stem from the lack of familiarity with these people’s animated banter. Surely it is not simply triggered by the color and shapes of their faces and clothes, as I have always enjoyed travelling through the Middle East and Africa. The only honest answer to filter upward is the U factor: fear of the Unfamiliar. Oddly, and this is what I am questioning, the ‘U’ factor is more unsettling here where these people are a minority of refugees and self-funded migrants in my space than there where I am a very visible tourist in their space. How weird is that?

As I waited for the green light, while stopped in front of a row of shops earlier this afternoon, I observed a little blond boy at play on the sidewalk while his mother was otherwise busy with a younger child. I watched as he pulled a black plastic gun out of his pocket, aimed it at the woman who happened to be passing him on the right and fired imaginary bullets at her back. He was no more than five years old.

As I noted this little boy’s antics, it brought back memories of the liberating debate that lasted through most of the ‘80s on the topic of Nature vs Nurture and the sudden awareness it had brought to mainstream families that most of our responses to children – starting with the ways newborns were nursed, bounced or tickled – varied according to their gender, as did their toys. And I thought it a sad indictment of our culture that thirty years later the effects of this awareness had lasted only the time of a birthday sparkler and, for the most part, we have allowed the damming cop out of boys will be boys to settle as comfortably over the matter as moss over decaying wood.

While I waited for the light to turn green, an image of a little Muslim boy also shooting imaginary bullets at passers-by sprang into my thoughts. And I knew, knew, knew, that if, from inside the cabin of my car, I had witnessed any one of these alternative scenes, it would have been a struggle to shrug it off with a mere ‘boys will be boys’. 

Quite simply, my thoughts were tainted by images of the unbridled euphoria in some corners of the Middle East beamed to us during the aftermath of 9/11 and other more recent scenes of mass hatred for the collective West spiced up by news of yet another suicide bomber killing X number of civilians. 

If only for a moment in that little boy’s gun play, I would have seen the seed of budding migrant violence, the seed of anger, resentment and hatred already pushed in the malleable brain of a young child. I would have imagined this child brought up in a militant extremist family, ‘one of many probably already in this country’ might have been the follow up thought.

And now, where am I going with this?

The recent headline After bin Laden: jubilation, sadness, fear and anger is a no-brainer. Death, in our culture, any death, is a solemn occasion and the Sky News footage of amped-up carnavalesque jubilation in New York, Washington and elsewhere in the West was quite confronting. Maybe it was because their euphoria was linked to the death of a human being and, in our culture, death, jubilation and street parties have never been linked together and should never be linked together – even if the death in question is that of an infamous international enemy – once one of the CIA’s most valued assets and trained accordingly.

Maybe it was because the crowds shouldering American flags were mostly made up of young males who, like kindergartners on a rampage, indulged themselves with offensive gestures and racial slurs. Maybe it was because the crude aspects of this revelry were not merely against the spirit of a dead man but were, at the same time, recklessly insulting millions of non-fundamentalist Muslims around the globe.

Maybe it was because aspects of these street scenes brought up similar images beamed from other places in the world where it is acknowledged that life is cheap and that blanket-hatred is a killer of innocent people of all ages. In these places, too, out of control young men drape themselves in their nation’s flag and they, too, in their own language chant a variation of ‘In God we trust.’

Is it the ‘war on terror’ that has eroded our most basic principles even if we, millions of Jane and John Doe living under democratic regimes, have not yet lost anyone to terrorism and live in countries where acts of terrorism are still, thankfully, as few as they were forty years ago – virtually non-existent?

Or is it that, undetected, a collective closed-heart callousness has crept up on us to override our usual basic sense of decency?