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September 28, 2001
To Civilisation, If I Can Find Her
I hear there's a war on the way. I hear it's going to be between the civilised world and the rest. Between the free democracies of the world and the rest. Between barbarians and the rest. Terrorism, my Prime Minister Vajpayee said the other day, is a 'great threat to our people, our values and our way of life.' The attack on America, he went on, 'is a stark and terrible reminder of the power and reach of the terrorists to destroy innocent lives and challenge the civilised order in this world.' And in this coming war, President Bush announced, 'you're either with us or against us,' forgive me if not quite in those words. 'Us,' it's safe to assume, refers to this civilised world.
So as an ordinary human being, horrified and angered by the brutality of September 11, in the fond belief that I'm somewhat civilised, I'm anxious to choose my side. But I'm somewhat baffled as well. I look for this civilisation and I begin to wonder: just where is it?
When Chile's elected leader Salvador Allende was murdered and one of the century's worst dictators Auguste Pinochet, put in place to spend a generation molesting that country and killing its citizens, was that civilisation? When a vast Soviet army overran Afghanistan and reduced that once fabled country to rubble, its proud people so devastated and demoralised that they cannot rise to shake off the tormentors who drove out the Soviets, well, was that civilisation?
When Rwanda's Hutus erupted in a hellish orgy of hatred and slaughtered their Tutsi countrymen for three months and the rest of the world preferred to look the other way, even quibbled over whether this genocide really was genocide, now was that civilisation? When, perhaps inspired by a hate-spewing figure whom a perverse Afghan cabal fiercely protects, maniacs with knives hijack planes and pilot them into two towering buildings and a squat one, taking 6,000 unsuspecting humans with them to fiery deaths, hey, is that civilisation?
When in the capital of the world's most populous democracy, a prime minister is assassinated and that is excuse enough to slaughter 3,000 Sikhs, and the country -- India, of course -- has not for 17 years found the will to punish the powerful men who led that slaughter, hello, is that civilisation? When Russians and Chechens maul and murder each other in arguably the world's most vicious war, look upon each other as just vermin to be exterminated, hmm, is that civilisation? When Israel elects a leader whose idea of negotiating peace is to shove ever more Jewish settlements down Palestinian throats, devoting ever more of his country's armed forces to "protecting" these illogical and unsustainable enclaves, thereby spilling ever more blood in that Holy Land, tell me won't you please tell me, is that civilisation?
I could go on, you know. South Africa, the Congo, Bombay, Turkey, Cambodia, Nicaragua: I could really go on and so could you.
So when this is the wealth of civilisation on display, year round, the world over, it's enough to leave a man scratching a hairy scalp in despair. Just where are the values that are 'under threat,' the 'civilised order' that's being destroyed? And what's a man to do when he's told 'you're either with us or against us'? Where does his revulsion at, for example, the American role in Allende's murder and Pinochet's regime place him: with or against? Is he 'with us' because he thinks the hijacking pilots, the men who murder in Kashmir, are terrorist scum? Or is he 'against us' because he thinks the murderers of the Sikhs are also terrorist scum?
Now I hardly mean to say that there are no principles of civilised life that are worth protecting. Nor that they suffer no threats today. Nor even do I want to introduce a meaningless moral relativism into the debates we are all wrestling with these days. The assaults on the WTC and the Pentagon were, as Robert Fisk says, crimes against humanity. Period.
But I do mean to say, let's be careful when we rush to stake our claim to be good. Let's be careful when we talk so easily of civilisational struggles between Good and Evil. Partly because we all have our dark little secrets that will come tumbling out. But mostly because this is an empty exercise in futility. It produces the grotesque scenario that is unfolding before our eyes: the massing of a mighty military machine to launch an assault on possibly the world's most ruined and desperate society; and these preparations cheered on by my country. Such an assault will kill precisely the wrong people, ruin that society even more, and leave all the hatreds intact, ready to strike again in more spectacularly horrific fashion.
There's no good there, and certainly no civilisation. That 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. That is, to repeat, just futility.
It is futile because it can never stamp out terrorism, just as the mere spraying of pesticides never eradicates malaria. You do 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.
Which means: no longer must we tolerate a world in which a minority lives pampered, wealthy, protected lives while the majority scrounges outside for the next gulp of water. That applies to the USA and Bangladesh just as much as it applies to Malabar Hill and the homeless beggars who roam its streets. (Why must a civilised world think it is acceptable that some of its residents sift through garbage for food?). No longer must justice be so selective that it is injustice above all. That applies to murdered Palestinians and disappeared Chileans just as much as it applies to the silent victims of riots in India. (Why must a civilised world think it is acceptable that riots "just happen" and so are normal?). No longer must corrupt or hate-mongering "leaders" be allowed to hold power, 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 Jayalalithaa. (And yes, why must a civilised world think a Mobutu must be propped up only because he claims to be a bulwark against Marxism?).
In short, and we might as well face it: terrorism didn't just arrive on our planet one recent morning. Oppression, poverty and injustice produce the hatreds that send terrorists to flight school in Florida. Tackling those enormous but never insurmountable problems, understanding that if they persist we are all threatened, will choke off terrorism.
In that sense, the planes that sliced into the WTC were true children of this globalization we hear so much about. With one cataclysmic explosion, they woke up America and the entire globe. Not just to the "power and reach of the terrorists", 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. Whoever "we" are, the misery now belongs to us all. It always did, but if we chose not to know it before, we know now. We can't afford not to. 'No man is an island,' John Donne did indeed write in 1623, but take more heed of 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: after the bell tolled so horribly in NYC and DC, let's know that it tolled for us. How must "we" respond?
First, find and punish the men responsible, bin Laden if it was him. Not by landing a gigantic force in a ravaged country, but by the same kind of tight, focused operation that found gruesome success on September 11. I am no military man, so I have no idea how difficult that will be. But however difficult, it is the only way to get the culprits.
That done, open 'our' eyes to all that's around us. Free of political bias, free of hypocrisy, free of hollow words about "our" civilised 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.
If it happens, that kind of introspection is far more than the way to eradicate terrorism, more even than the only possible silver lining to the sickness of September 11. It is the very meaning of civilisation.
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