So obviously it is difficult for an architect to see destruction. The recent images from Haiti are an example. The entire built environment collapsed. Images of the decimated parliament building symbolized a crushed and broken country. But I slept at night knowing that Haiti was a natural disaster. We can learn from Haiti to prevent that kind of massive damage in the future.
The destruction of war, however, leaves me sleepless and frustrated. It terrifies me to know that someone from my hometown would want to bomb Times Square, one of the most beautiful places on this planet. Is it strange that it makes me scared of myself? That if I were a New Yorker and saw me, an innocent-looking boy from Karachi, Pakistan, I would be suspicious? I walk around trying to fathom why someone who just recently became an American citizen would suddenly turn against his new country. I protest and my emails meet a deafening silence from my own community. There are the formal condemnations with a reservation: “Can’t you see why someone would want to do that?”
No, I can’t. So I look for an explanation.
Former mayor Rudi Giuliani says on Larry King Live that “they” hate our values of freedom and liberty and want to destroy them. But people at Princeton point out a link I had almost forgotten—the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if watching CNN makes you forget about the wars. And I realize that there is a severe discord in the information that people on different sides of the war are receiving. People in America hear about terrorists who hate America. People abroad hear about an unfair war in Iraq. And somehow people in Pakistan connect the civil war there with America, even though all of the suicide bombings are carried out by the Taliban or other extremist Islamic groups.
In my time here, there is one American thing I have come to value more than anything else: the respect for plurality. This is made possible by the right to freely express oneself. At Princeton, we disagree often, but we hear and respect other opinions and sometimes we learn the most from the people we disagree with. We listen. We vehemently debate issues with “the other side” and then later that night we add members of the other side to our list of Facebook friends.
That is what is lacking in the real world: an opportunity to communicate. People are talking at each other and there is no room for empathy. There is no room in the heart of the terrorist for the empty rooms that will be left behind when American soldiers are killed in roadside bombs almost every day. And there is no room in the heart of outrageous Americans for the agony faced by countless families who lose loved ones in the wars almost every day. I am scared because each new attack and each new invasion will create more terrorists and more wars.
It is time we start creating forums where both sides can communicate with one another. Those of us who make things must work much harder. I truly believe that the sheer beauty of a thing will prevent someone bent on its destruction to pause and reflect. Especially if the person can feel some sort of personal connection to the thing. Architecture (and all created things) can be exclusive or inclusive. We need to make more inclusive things that acknowledge various viewpoints. We need to listen. We need to explain where we’re coming from. We need to have more conversations.