The End of Terror, and Other Stories
July 29, 2009 § 1 Comment
“Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.”
(Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet)
Few things in this world can be uglier than a society in the throes of a ‘popular’ war.
Almost one hundred years have elapsed since nineteenth-century civilization, its barbarisms hitherto outsourced to Factory and to Colony, hurtled into a maelstrom of mass slaughter. The world of the philosophes, remember, fought pitched battles over a few feet of bloodied earth.
Yet today–still–they deign to teach us that it’s as simple as sending the hounds after the brutes. We confront–still–sadism costumed in the sweet nothings of suited mandarins.
History has toyed with us, sending us in circles even as our ideologues never ceased screaming full steam ahead: the European bourgeois sang of the Three C’s (commerce, christianity, civilization) as he flattened Africa. Today, in an Af-Pak far, far away, our “people’s government” speaks, with knowing smiles, of three D’s (deterrence, development, dialogue) as it steamrolls the north-west.
Indeed, it might as well be admitted–the torch of the bourgeois revolution was extinguished long ago, in the young blood of brown boys and dead barbarians. One ought not to forget what happens when militant messiahs meet the steel of the wronged civilizer. The British dispatched Herbert Kitchener to liberate Sudan from the remnants of the Mahdi’s Islamic state. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, having overseen his machine-gunners’ slaughter of up to ten thousand Mahdists (at the cost of only 48 of his own troops, who were two-thirds Sudanese and Egyptian themselves), Lord Kitchener left the wounded to die. Even a young Churchill, embedded there as an officer-cum-reporter, was aghast at his callousness. Later, it is said, Kitchener ordered the Mahdi’s exhumed skull fashioned into an inkstand.
Fittingly, fifteen years later, it was Kitchener’s face that crowned the British WWI recruitment drive, as Europe trucked its working-classes to the trenches. Beneath his mercenary glare was emblazoned the tell-all whoop of total war: “Your Country Needs You!”
Pakistan, draped in the nonsense narrative of the righteous State, recently went “hard” on terror.
The official script is unapologetic. This brave, faithful, and proud people, plagued for too long by roving bands of satanic neanderthals, has united behind its brave, faithful and, er, proud army.
Every night, honest, God-fearing men, women and children huddle together in the bluish glow of their television sets, as our patriots-in-makeup plagiarize Major General Athar Abbas’ most recent press briefing (his three brothers, tellingly, are themselves journalists). Families exalt, together, as presenters relay the heroic news of one or two dozen militant deaths–they sigh as the proud widow of yesterday’s dead serviceman weeps in front of hungry cameras. As fathers mumble a heartfelt curse on the houses of the barbarians, they turn off the TV and all say their good nights. Thus ends another blessed day in the Land of the Pure.
Garlanded in the golds and greens of Third World salvation, our elite gleefully chirps that terror is straightforward. Life in our gated offworlds is as easy as the Manichaeisms demand: on the one side the good and the sacred, on the other side the evil and the profane. They explode our five-star hotels; we, humanity intact, strike at their training camps, their munitions factories, their ‘attack tunnels.’ Simple, clean, reasonable. Counter-insurgency as surgery.
The picture, of course, is farce.
It is terrifying that these eight years of occupations for democracy have taught so many so little.
As you chip away at the tragicomedy of what the State claims–as its misogynists become warriors for women’s liberation, its extremists vanguards for a war on extremism, and its repressive powers democracy’s last stand–you approach the sorry heart of the matter.
The truth is that, in the last instance, the war’s defenders are trapped in a criminal tautology. The State’s most basic, most pathetic function is being resolved into its final justification. The observation that the State, in theory, exists as the sole purveyor of legitimate violence becomes the righteous thesis that, in practice, the State must defend this monopoly at all costs. Even sensible commentators have lost themselves in the vacuum of evangelical anger that ensues (“They don’t accept this democracy!”), all-too-willing to dress liberal hogwash in the idioms of the apocalypse.
Can we not, please, stop to ask why? From those to whom this world has bequeathed nothing but bullets and bombs, why do you expect paeans and petals? Only this past weekend, Karachi’s first rains betrayed the ruling algebra of expendability: thirty-two confirmed deaths in twenty-four hours. One for every five millimeters of rainfall. (Most of them, DAWN matter-of-factly reported, were “women and children in shanties.”)
In truth, our State succeeds only in proportion to the world it manages to keep invisible. As always, our power-elite have ordered the floodlights fixed on themselves (find me something more intolerable than the politician-analyst communion consecrated on evening talk shows), while in the darkness–“out there!”–lies the Word.
This, of course, has always been the task at-hand: to peel away the thickening layers of self-worship in pursuit of the noxious, rotten core. To be, as Neruda said, the “man of bread and fish.”
But if in the best of times this–the critical act–is only a necessary corrective to the real work of movement-building, today–in a despairing country playing long-term host to the bombast of the American Empire–it becomes an indispensable source of solace for the penitent coward.
Our trip to Benares, a Pashtun neighborhood well to the North of my neo-colonial safehouse, was precisely this–a trip to confessional; a muffled, bumbled apology for the chutzpah of everyday life. This is a country occupied in slaughter, in the grips of a terrifying array of economic and social crises–a society stalked by perpetual, catastrophic unfairness. Yet, noblesse oblige aside, our Second Estate remains blissfully lost in dinner parties and Euro Trips.
We had made our way through winding, narrow gullies to meet friends of a friend. They, in turn, introduced us to a handful of refugees that had fled the fighting. I was overflowing with questions. Preoccupied, in particular, with the gymnastics of the Left’s confusion, I asked earnestly about the sociology of the Taliban: who were they, when did they appear, what did they demand. They–in the main middle-aged–talked slowly, deliberately, sometimes even reluctantly. But the thrust of my questions left them unimpressed–why this relentless concern with the whys and hows of rag-tag militancy, they wondered, when Swat was drowning in bombs?
Regardless, they suffered me–we talked at length about the iniquity of life under the khans. Particular spite was reserved for Afzal Khan Lala–today much-acclaimed lionheart of Swati secularism, yesterday ringleader of the landlord alliance that squashed a peasant uprising in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, no one suggested that the Taliban were fighting for the liberation of the downtrodden–one man, disgruntled toddler in tow, told me that he had a few friends, all poor, who had signed up. “They’re gangsters, but they don’t bother us. What do they say? Pray more, keep your shalwar up. Who cares?” he said. “It’s the army, the fucking army that’s slaughtering us.” When I told him that the State claimed it was saving them from a terrible, hellish future, he sneered disdainfully. “Who could want this sort of salvation?”
Five or six parallel conversations later, I was sipping scalding tea with a new friend, who had shadowed us on the visit. Umar, a 23-year old Swati textile worker from the adjacent industrial cluster, disagreed vigorously with the narratives I had heard. “The brutality of the Khans is very real, and some of the Taliban might be poor, but their agenda is not this. It is more than a gang–the Army made them, let them grow, and still pays them.” It was a refrain that is, by now, all-too-familiar: “This whole business is a game for dollars. Our generals get richer by killing Pathans.”
I shifted the conversation to his activism–Umar is a political worker with the Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, which has its most serious roots in the Pashtun populations of Baluchistan. I put the obligatory Karachi-activist question to him–did MQM ever bother them? He laughed. “I think they’ve repeated that Benares is full of the Taliban so often that they believe it themselves. They’re terrified of their own propaganda. We never see them in these parts.”
The bombs, of course, have not stopped. Despite having leveled whole swathes of Swat, Dir, and Buner (the World Bank and ADB have been prominent in post-operation “needs assessment” in Malakand–shock doctrine, anyone?), our civilized vanguard is scarcely satiated. The theater has shifted to Waziristan, the unforgiving, world-historical hotbed of the global Jihadi (the coordinated Orientalism is precious–Agence France-Presse, for example, feels compelled to explain to its diligent readers that Waziristan forms part of the “wild tribal belt.”) In the frothing, floating, context-less gibberish of our talking-heads, the refrain is always Lord Curzon: “Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace.” Cue the F-16s.
We return then, as we must, to a structuring thesis. If Marxism acknowledges historical advance, it can only be with a careful eye and the heaviest of hearts–with an unforgiving intolerance for all “unconscious tools” of history. It is, in fact, precisely because the bourgeois must drag his Capital through blood and dirt–precisely because Civilization must stake its claims in the corpses of the Other–that we must be relentlessly alive to this world’s underside.
History written in the memories of the vanquished is invariably a chronicle of the sober heroics of The People. In the Jamaican elections of 1864 (almost thirty years after the pomp of the British Emancipation Act), only 2,000 of a population of 436,000 were eligible to participate (“nearly all of them white”). In this world, the vigilante murder of peaceful protesters lit a fire that became the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. Victorian civilization, haunted by the specter of the Indian War of Independence, answered with the naked sadism characteristic of a bourgeois once-affronted. Prisoners were tied to trees and used for target practice–novice marksmen took aim from four hundred yards as enterprising officers prepared to report the body parts hit.
It is this–the “enormous condescension of posterity,” of the enlightened, of the victorious–to which we must bear witness–for the present, for Pakistan.
Come and see the blood in the streets,
Come and see
the blood in the streets,
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
(Pablo Neruda, I’m Explaining a Few Things)
The decisive question, thus, is not at all whether we might win our War on Terror–whether the Left might just shut up shop, cross its fingers, and wake to a land free of desperation and holy delusions. Those asking this question–and there are always too many–have made themselves decisively irrelevant to the world we might one day build.
Instead, we have to ask ourselves whether we will emerge from the chasms that stalk us with new solidarities and old dreams intact–or whether from that terrible, frigid expanse between loss and glory, between hunger and gluttony, between anger and apathy, will be born a world impermeable to hope.