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Ignorance has a price TIPS would have played on Americansí unjustified fears.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

If Attorney General John Ashcroft had his way, Americans would have by now been showing extra-keen interest in their brown-skinned neighbors and clients. The local TV repairman would have been tempted to dial 911 to let the police know of his suspicions of a family that just subscribed to a "Foreign" TV channel, or the local pizza delivery boy could have been whispering his suspicions about people talking in a strange language when he went to deliver pizza that they had ordered in a "Funny" accent.

This unwelcome interest of the ignorant would have been fueled by the Bush administrationís plans to enlist Americans to spy on their fellow citizens or neighbors. The Terrorism Information and Prevention System - TIPS - bill was recently rejected by Congress because it faced opposition not only from the ACLU but also from the likes of Republican Congressman Dick Armey.

American democracy is vibrant and healthy as indicated by Congressí rejection of a foolish proposal. However, mere opposition to an ill-thought-out and dangerous bill is one thing; educating Americans about their neighborsí religion, language, ways of life and philosophies to make America really multicultural is quite another. And, indeed, if the harrowing experience of a South Indian actress and her family a few weeks ago while traveling from Chicago to New York City is anything to go by, we Americans need to be putting some serious effort into educating ourselves about the rest of the world and about our "Brown-Skinned" neighbors.

Indian actress Samyuktha Varma and her parents were traveling from Chicago to New York City. It was their first trip to the United States and they were excited. As the plane neared New York, they animatedly pointed out the window and exchanged seats to get a better view of the famed skyline. The plane landed and - instead of being met by friends - they were whisked away by gun-toting security personnel to be interrogated. Five hours later, they were let go by apologetic personnel. The tired, hungry and thirsty travelers vowed never to visit the United States again.

What happened?

A suspicious passenger, who just as easily could have gone up and chatted with the actress, called one of the flight crew members and complained about what she thought was suspicious behavior. The flight attendant, without checking to make sure, went up to the pilot and relayed the suspicions of the passenger. In turn, the pilot radioed ground control, which sent two F-16s scrambling to escort the plane to the airport.

After five tiring hours of being asked where they were from, what they were doing, why they were pointing out the window and having their passports checked and rechecked, the actress and her family were let go.

Unfortunately, no one really bothered to "Debrief" or interview the suspicious passenger who complained to the flight attendant, for only through such debriefing can we know why so many Americans are not just paranoid of their traveling companions but why they are so ignorant about the ways of the world.

The person who complained about the actress and her family was not alone in her suspicions. Since Sept. 11, the Air Force has scrambled its jets at least 400 times to escort planes to the tarmac and in each of those 400 cases it has been a false alarm! This means, on an average, Americaís fighter pilots have hurried up to flank a passenger aircraft and escort it down to the tarmac at least three times every two days. And this also means that at least 400 passengers have been hauled off to the security area and interrogated for the simple reason that a fellow passenger did not like their looks or misread nonverbal behavior.

Americans indeed are worried about air travel since Sept. 11, but the subjects of and reasons for our suspicion should be of tremendous concern to our leaders and educators. Could a beautiful South Indian actress and her father and mother be doing such strange things on the plane that they realistically could be assumed to be plotting to take over the plane and crash it into the Empire State Building?

It is one thing to know that some brown-skinned men hijacked four planes, slit the throats of pilots and cabin crew and commandeered jets that they took knifing through the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, but it is completely mindless to assume that any brown-skinned person, old or young, male or female, traveling with aged parents or not and having gone through three or four security checkpoints is in the process of carrying out the dastardly acts the 19 al-Qaida men carried out last September.

We Americans are reacting as we are simply because of our vast ignorance of the outside world, nay, even of our own country. For many of us surely have Indian or Turkish, Greek or Filipino, Nepali or Mexican neighbors. However, I am not so sure that we are interested in or care about enough of our neighbors to know that indeed a whole variety of ethnic groups sport brown skins.

Our ignorance is fueled in part by our education system and in part by our media. For example, even in liberal arts and sciences universities it is rare to find Arabic, South Asian or African language courses offered. The "Foreign Language" departments offer mostly European languages and Greek and Latin are the only "Classical" languages taught. Even more disturbing is that our philosophy and religion professors cannot or will not teach non-Western philosophy and about non-Semitic religions. Our music departments not only donít teach non-Western music; they are loath to support the performance of non-Western classical music when their "International" colleagues come seeking such support.

The news media are even further behind in the presentation and learning curve. Our preoccupation with American sports, American movies, American popular music and American news and views has ensured an audience that is almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Not that "World" music and "Foreign" movies are not available for purchase and viewing, but they are confined to select outlets where "Ethnic Minorities" do their shopping and viewing. "World Music", "International Films" and "Foreign" news have the kind of status in the American media as do "Third World" countries at G-8 summits: that of "Outsiders" pleading for assistance, acknowledgement and support.

The Western bias and the myopic vision of our media owners, our schools and universities have led to a citizenry that is at once overwhelmed with information and yet starved for knowledge. It is time we changed that.

If airline passengers, who on average are better educated and more wealthy, cannot distinguish between a South Indian actress and a Saudi Arabian terrorist, should we not be focusing on training our children and our neighbors about the manners and methods of the rest of the world so that we can learn to be a real multicultural nation?

TIPS was defeated, thank God, but we canít rest assured till we introduce the world to Americans.

Originally published on Sunday, August 11, 2002.

 
     
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