The ones that really struck me were from John Le Carre, author of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “The Russia House” and other finely-crafted books. You read them and you know this is not a man prone to off-the-cuff statements; this is an intelligent man who thinks deeply about the world around him, the great issues of his time. So for this man to say what he did in mid-January is a sign of the times we live in, a commentary on the events that we watch happening around us, thinking we are helpless to stop them.
“America has entered one of its periods of historical madness,” he wrote in the London Times on Jan. 15, “but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.” I’m not sure I agree with all that—the McCarthy age, for one, is a blot that is going to take some outdoing. Still, Le Carre intends to provoke thought, and he does. Most of all with these two sentences: “How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history. But they swung it.”
To me, the conjuring trick is in more than just the deflection from Osama to Saddam. It’s also in the effective end to debate over so much: financial scams such as WorldCom and Enron; American withdrawal from international treaties and commitments; and that mother of questions—did Bush actually win the 2000 presidential election to begin with?
No doubt, and with reason, 9/11 put these issues in the shade. But today’s drumbeat of war has probably killed them for good. Think about it: don’t such words as the Florida recount and—was it chads?—seem like musty history today?
But think just a bit more, to understand that this deflection business—anger, attention, so forth—is the very foundation of politics. And war is an ancient, time-tested method to achieve it. George Bush is hardly the first to do it, nor is he the only one at it today, nor will he be the last. So I suspect the question to ask—well, if you still think asking questions is a worthwhile exercise—is whether this war, or any war, is justified in the first place. Bush says it is. But let’s have answers from people with less of a stake in the next U.S. election.
In truth, that question plays itself out into others. They pile up fast. Where is the firm evidence in Iraq that justifies war? What is the unholy nexus between Saddam and Osama, especially given that they appear to hate each other? In fact, where is Osama? What’s being done to find him, to punish him for Sept. 11? How much of this talk of war has to do with oil? How much with the 2004 Presidential elections? Why should we be either “with” Bush or “with” terrorists, as he infamously told us we had to be? Why can’t I be every bit as repelled by the prospect of war on Iraq, even despot-ruled Iraq, as I was horrified by the sight of airliners smashing into the World Trade Center?
Lots of questions. And when it’s war and terrorism, there are questions to ask of other political leaders too. Whether their names are Blair or Musharraf, Sharon or Saddam, Arafat or Vajpayee.
Take that last named honorable. Take Vajpayee and India.
When prime and chief ministers tell us that terrorism is by far the greatest threat to India, that terrorism comes only from across our western border, that that western neighbor is filled with glowering monsters and that we will not negotiate with them until the terrorism stops: well, the questions to be asked simply overflow. Try some with me.
First, without meaning to diminish the horror of terrorism, I’d like to know precisely how it is a greater threat to India—meaning to the lives of Indians—than, let’s say, the poverty that keeps hundreds of millions of my fellow countrymen scrounging for food and water every day. I mean that word “precisely,” because such questions are often answered with empty mantras about how a nation has to bother first about security. See, mantras interest me not at all. Because this one is used to cover for not bothering about anything, security least of all.
Second, without lessening the guilt of the western neighbor, I’d like to know what we must make of home-grown terror: The massacre of 3,000 Indians in Delhi in 1984. 1,000 more killed in Bombay, 1992. 1,000 more in Gujarat, 2002. Five more in Jhajjar, 2002. A dozen more in Bihar in January. Dozens and hundreds of incidents like these. And to these instances of terrorism, you can add the daily terror I alluded to above: the daily misery that blights and destroys so many Indian lives. What are my leaders, intent as they claim to be on fighting terrorism, doing about these things?
Third, when they speak as they do about terrorism, are our leaders not simply deflecting our anger away from the Indian problems they have no intention of addressing—whether poverty or home-grown massacres or putting criminals in power? Fourth, can I not be as infuriated by terrorism from within our borders as by terrorism from across them? Fifth, then why do our leaders pronounce that critics are, by definition, pro-terrorism and traitorous, unless it is to evade the criticism? Sixth, what does a temple have to do with any of this, unless it is for further evasion? Seventh, do I really have to go on?
What the loud talk of war, enemies and terrorism does—whether in the U.S., Pakistan, Iraq or India—is silence all such questions. Paradoxically, what it must do is make the questions louder than ever. It is in the middle of a leader’s hostile invective towards an enemy that we must be most skeptical, most insistent on clear answers. Because history makes it a good bet that such rhetoric amounts only to what Le Carre remarked on: clever deflection of anger. And you know what? History or not, I’m tired of deflection.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.