Kindness in the Midst of Horror

By Vijay Mehrotra

Sept. 14, 2001: Like many of you, I am still reeling from this week's events. You think about the tragedy, the senseless loss of life, and also about the heroics and courage (the relief workers, the courage of the passengers who brought down the Newark-SFO flight).

But then I think of stupid stuff, too (the sudden absence of simple, frivolous things like games and concerts), things that must seem trivial to everyone who has lost loved ones and friends. Living in a prosperous country, we are extremely fortunate, for the fabric of our life contains lots of "unnecessary" threads, luxuries that we often take for granted. I fear that we have lost a sense of security that may never really come back.

And then there are things that I don't even think about until they hit me between the eyes. A nice lady on the street the other day gave me a concerned smile and asked me if "They were treating me OK?"

"Huh?" I thought. And then suddenly it hit me: She was worried that as a dark-skinned foreigner I was being targeted by strangers as a would-be terrorist.

Once I sorted this out, I told her the first thing that came to mind: "I've been through this before, in 1979, during the Iran Hostage Crisis," I said. There had been some heckling back then, mostly in jest, and there are notes in my school yearbook to remind me - but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about those days.

Her face grew more concerned, and I noticed. "Don't worry about me — I'm fine," I said quickly. She looked me in the eye and said, "Hey, man, you're an American." There was a mixture of compassion, sadness and pride in her voice.

"I've got the same problems as everybody else does, I guess," I told her before getting in my car, stunned. "You're an American," she said again, and then I was gone.

Halfway down the block, I burst into tears. It was a simple and odd conversation with a stranger, a decidedly weird interaction, but mostly it was an extremely kind gesture in the middle of a sad, sad time.

I am an American, and I hurt like all the rest of us. That this attack on our country came from abroad, just like my family and I did, makes me sad. That I am an immigrant is a fact that is often lost on me day to day, and I was surprised to get a kind, encouraging reminder from a stranger.

God, I appreciate such kindness. We all need kindness in the midst of such horror.

I know you are all dealing with your own situation and thoughts. Those out East, I pray that you and your families are OK. Those with children, I hope that you are able to explain that there is more love than hate in this world despite what these incidents look like to your children. Those from abroad (and those of you that just look like you're from abroad), I hope that you continue to feel welcome in this great country even if there are a few out there who wish us ill Ÿ there always will be a few.

Those who, like me, are sitting here wondering what to do; I don't know what to say. I can only encourage you just take a few minutes to reach outside yourselves to your friends and loved ones, wherever they are, and share in any way you can.

To all of you, I wish for the peace that enables us to look forward to ballgames, concerts, road trips and walks in the park — and a return to a time when the hardest problem that we face is a mathematical or technical one.

In this difficult time I find I'm very, very proud to be an American. I pray that the weeks and months to come be filled with as little blood as possible.

Oct. 24, 2001: It seems hard to believe that it happened just six weeks ago. For me, the shock of the attacks has worn down, replaced by big new worries: a military war abroad and the fear of what might arrive in the mail tomorrow.

But even little things are different now. Flags are everywhere. The seventh-inning-stretch song is now "God Bless America" — and the TV broadcast stays tuned in. Airport security lines are up, while air travel levels — and scheduled flights — are way down. We're no longer lamenting the popping of the economic bubble but instead speculating about the likelihood of a worldwide recession. It is, I fear, just what the perpetrators of the attacks were hoping would happen.

For me, there is still much sadness. Perhaps we humans are and have always been a tribal, distrusting, violent species — but my experience had largely been contrary to this. Like many in our profession, the compassion and acceptance that I have experienced in the United States has far, far outweighed the distrust and prejudice.

It is terrible to see friends harassed and attacked simply because of how they look, and since Sept. 11 it has happened rarely, and still far too often. Driving down the street, I find myself imagining being pulled over, interrogated, arrested — or simply attacked at random. What will they do to me?

Beyond that, it is horrifying to see that the very technologies and systems that make our everyday society run are being maliciously exploited to kill people. And we really have no idea where this cycle of violence and response will end.

Later this week I'll get on an airplane for the first time since 9/11/01. There is a twinge of anxiety, even though as a seasoned traveler and a probabilist, I should know better.



Vijay Mehrotra (vijay@onward-net.com) is the CEO of Onward Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.