My first memory of 9/11 goes as far back as the day itself. I had just turned 6. The new millennium had started. Classroom dates were changed from the 1999s to the 2000s, a rare experience in a child’s life. We had an old television set, far more decrepit than one could imagine. Two planes had collided head-on with two tall buildings—razing them to the ground. What were those buildings? Why were they there? Who flew the planes? None of it was of any coherence to me. I saw two planes collide into two buildings—nothing more, nothing less. It was bad. It looked bad.
The reason why I mentioned this linear montage of images is that no matter where anyone was during the attacks—a 54-year-old male stranded on the top floor of the 2nd tower, his wife walking down Port Authority, their grandson sitting in his high school a couple of miles away, or a 6-year-old Indian sitting in front of his decrepit television set are connected in their own disturbing ways—even now, when the millennium has embraced its second decade. One such aftermath was the changes in the U.S. visa process—an additional spew of 8-pages long “Security-related questions” asking an aspirant applicant to confess whether he will ever “commit, incite, assist or otherwise participate” in any criminal activity—will he bring explosives into United States to bomb a building; will he steal passports, indulge in espionage, sell women or “aid, abet, collude” with a person who has done so, or incite religious riots? If yes, then please enter “Yes,” if no, please enter “No.”
Excuse the rhetoric, but offensive as these questions are, each and every one of the 9 million applicants that successfully passes the visa process is made to answer them. Eight pages of saying “no” to obvious questions is a sardonic testimony to the ignorant and whimsical attitude of many U.S. authorities: that everyone who enters the United States is a potential suicide bomber, religious extremist and a sex-racket mastermind until he proves the contrary. Despite the indisputably persistent way that this process has survived the decade, its inclusion in the U.S. visa process is both counter-productive and stagnant in an assumption long forgotten and forgiven.
The purpose of answering these questions is undoubtedly futile, for two simple reasons. The incidents in question have either not yet happened, in that they refer to the future tense “will,” or are already answerable in the first question itself: “Do you hold a criminal record?” In light of this statement, one has to ask as to why the questions exist in the first place, let alone why they continue their insinuation to such extreme levels?
The answer to the first can be found through a syllogism that governed many changes in US government policies post 9/11: 9/11 was a terrorist activity. The terrorists were foreigners. All foreigners are terrorists. Many of the changes were mainly precautionary— stricter rules on airport security, increased scrutiny on visa applications—and none of those changes were wrong in their inception. However, alongside such cautionary measures rose a set of changes that were outrageous from the get-go, which served no purpose but only reiterated the general hostility that the United States had developed toward outsiders. The question on the extremity of their insinuations, therefore, is answered simply. The questions were designed to serve no purpose but insinuation—to make the applicant feel a genuine discomfort of gaining the “outsider” status in a country that has recently developed a collective mistrust in him.
It is a rare feeling when one stands at the edge of the 9/11 memorial, leaning against the black marble slabs, staring at the water consuming itself. As a tourist, it is often strange to ask people around where the 9/11 memorial site is. It is not a location meant for sightseeing, but a place of remembrances. How do you ask about it in a manner that respects its significance? A place of quiet and pain, of closure and catharsis.
Just as strange and alien this conversation of getting directions may seem, the feeling of standing there against the black marble slabs is at once recognizable and immersive. Déjà vu. If one looks around, there are different faces; differentiated not by color, caste or origins that need visas to stand there, but faces of expression—some of stillness. The names on the slabs stay eternal, undivided by social constructs of blame, hostility and insinuation. Their loss is universal. Pain is universal. As we stand there, individuals, coming from different places, from different directions, there is a feeling of cohesion—a solidarity of emotion and being—expressed in silent glances, stares, looks or the courteous nod of a head to strangers who pass us by.
It is strange, therefore, to think about the paradox that embodies the whole situation—after thirteen years, the tragedy of 9/11 reaches a level of universality and brotherhood, while a visa questionnaire (born out of the first) attempts to tear down this sense of unity. The tranquility of the moment is contrasted sharply against the interrogation and discomfort that the questionnaire provides: the latter blunt, unswerving and offensive, the former mellow, solemn and reposed.
There has been a visible break in the change of perceptions toward 9/11 and its aftermath and its reflection in the visa process of United States. While the former seems to have moved forward and matured, the latter stays transfixed in the past. When the people themselves have started to lose the feeling that the visa questionnaire propounds, why continue with it in the first place? What function does it serve apart from painting a false image of reality? Of hatred and blame that do not exist? As the rhetoric adds up, the opinions developed on the “Security-related questions’” edge strongly toward those of disapproval and strong opposition, with a simple solution. Remove them.
—Udbhav Agarwal ’18