When I look out my window here in Bombay, I am looking sort of northwest. When I do so these days, I imagine I’m looking right at what’s going on some hundreds of kilometers away in that direction. In Afghanistan. And as I look, I wonder: they call it a war of the civilized against the uncivilized, but could there be a more grotesque war than this? Where the mightiest military machine the world has ever known assaults possibly the world’s most ruined and desperate country? On which side in this turkey-shoot am I to find civilization?
And more grotesque still is that this assault is generally cheered in my country.
Not that Osama, his supporters and the Taliban are ruined and desperate victims, by no means. They are wily, canny fighters. Besides that, they live off a land they have raped for years now, and their crimes make them fully deserving of punishment.
The trouble is, after a month of bombing, what’s abundantly clear is that it’s not the Taliban that is getting that punishment. It is the people of Afghanistan, people already devastated by decades of war. Truly, the assault on that wretched country is killing precisely the wrong people, ruining that society even more. It is leaving hatreds intact and heightened, ready to strike again in more spectacularly horrific fashion than on Sept. 11.
And here in India, it sharpens our own never-very-well-hidden prejudices, lets us construct the massive pretence that Pakistan is at the root of all our ills, allows us to complacently shut our eyes to much that shames us that is of our own doing.
So I ask again: On which side am I to find this civilization, then? This is no war against terrorism that I want to be part of, that I want my country to be part of, that I want fought at all. This is futility, simple.
It is futile because it will never stamp out terrorism, just as the mere spraying of pesticides cannot eradicate malaria. How do you eradicate malaria? By starving its carriers of the conditions in which they thrive.
In much the same way, as so many have pointed out, you destroy terrorism by addressing the conditions that spawn terrorists. Julio Ribeiro, widely admired for breaking the back of terrorism in Punjab, never tires of saying that the way to defeat terrorism is to win the minds and hearts of the people it pretends to speak for.
All of which means many things. For one, no longer must we tolerate a world where a minority lives pampered, wealthy, protected lives while the majority scrounges outside for the next gulp of water. That applies to the U.S. and Liberia just as much as it applies to Malabar Hill and the homeless beggars who roam its streets. Why must a civilized world think it is acceptable that some of its residents sift through garbage for food?
For another, no longer must justice be so selective that it is injustice above all. That applies to murdered Palestinians and disappeared Argentinians just as much as it applies to the silent victims of innumerable riots in India. Why must a civilized world think it is acceptable that riots “just happen” and so are “normal”?
For a third, no longer must corrupt or hate-mongering “leaders” be allowed to hold power and escape their crimes, just because they serve particular political purposes. That applies to Pinochet and Mobutu and Mubarak and Nawaz Sharif just as much as it applies to Thackeray and Jayalalitha. And yes, why must a civilized world tolerate a Thackeray only because he claims to be defending Hinduism, a Mobutu only because he claims to be fighting Marxism?
We might as well face it: terrorism didn’t just turn up on our planet that clear September morn. Oppression, poverty and injustice produce the hatreds that send terrorists—well-heeled terrorists, sure—to flight school in Florida. Tackling those enormous but hardly insurmountable problems, understanding that if they persist we are all threatened, will choke off terrorism.
In that sense, I believe the planes that roared into the twin towers were true children of this globalization we hear so much about. That one cataclysmic explosion woke up America and the entire globe. Not just to what terrorists are capable of, but also to the consequences of the illusion that “we” are safe behind our gates and barbed wire and security guards and immigration laws and eyes that are so firmly shut to the misery that wallows beyond their lids. Indeed: whoever “we” are, the misery now belongs to us all. It always did, but if we chose not to know it before, we must know now. We can’t afford not to.
“No man is an island”, John Donne wrote in 1623, but I shiver more at the what he wrote only a few words later: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Yes: The bell tolled horribly indeed in NYC and DC. Let’s know that it tolled for us all.
How must “we,” whoever and wherever “we” are, respond?
First, find and punish the men responsible, bin Laden if it was him. Not by a gigantic bombardment of a ravaged country, but by the same kind of tight, focused operation that found gruesome success on Sept. 11. I know nothing of military matters, so I have no idea how difficult that will be.
But however difficult, it seems to me the only way to get the culprits. Once that’s done, let’s open “our” eyes to all that’s around us. Free of political bias, free of hypocrisy, free of hollow words about “our” civilized values and their “barbarity” and everybody’s religion. Let’s understand that the way we live, the choices we make, the things we do, the policies we follow, cannot but leave their mark. In all humility, let’s each recognize our own mistakes and failures, whether religious, societal, political or personal. Let’s rebuild beginning from that foundation. I have no idea how difficult all that will be either. But however difficult, it is the only way to launch a successful assault on terrorism.
“I think it’s humility that’s needed in all religions, in all societies”, a friend wrote to me after Sept. 11. Introspection like that is far more than the way to eradicate terrorism, more even than the possible silver lining to the sickness of Sept. 11.
It is the very meaning of civilization.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay.