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THROUGH THEIR EYES ONLY

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

There was a time when many countries truly believed that freedom was a desirable goal, to be sought out, and preserved carefully. Even if the leadership in some of these countries tended on occasion to try to hedge it about with seemingly innocuous conditions, the media, and through it public opinion, including opposing political groups, prevented it from succeeding. There were, of course, the dictatorships in South America, Africa and southeast Asia; there were the totalitarian regimes in what was the Soviet Union, in China and North Korea. But the idea of freedom was never absent even in these countries (perhaps it was in some African countries, but that need not detain us here), and in the rest, it was a concept that was, and still is, constantly debated and studied.

It was, of course, a favourite word with politicians and those in power, whether they had been democratically elected or were despots. But in spite of being used, misused, distorted and generally wrung out of shape, the idea, the essential idea, stayed somewhere as a concept that a large number of people all over the world understood and were aware of, even if they did not have it. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes of eastern Europe gave it, at the time, a new and seemingly potent meaning, as it did to many in India in August 1947. These times were short, as power brokers were quick to interpret the word and the concept to suit their own ends; but, oddly, the concept still remained, floating somewhere in the collective consciousness.

In the forefront of those who used the word, declared they lived by all that it meant, and held it aloft as their very own were the Americans. Their country was founded on a belief in that concept, they said, and fought a terrible civil war to give it real meaning. Their laws were based on the sanctity of individual freedom, as was a great deal of government action. If they armed themselves, and amassed a formidable nuclear arsenal, it was, they said, to counter the menace of totalitarianism, and the suppression of freedom.

All this was, of course, valid only in their own country; abroad they supported dictatorships, sometimes cruel and utterly corrupt ones as in South and Central America, and were more interested in carving out spheres of influence than ensuring that individual liberties were secured as they were in their own country. But they sedulously kept the myth of being the defender of freedom alive, as they do now, while plying Pervez Musharraf with money, weapons and other goodies. They have tried to be very clever in defining terrorism — it’s one thing back in the United States of America, a table-thumping no-nonsense definition there, and it’s something else here in India where they try to give the word just that bit of vagueness that accommodates their friend, the general in Pakistan. That everyone knows what they’re doing is obvious, but it makes no difference to them; why it doesn’t we shall see a little later.

What is not stated very obviously is that their definition of freedom assumes that it comes with a great deal of wealth. If you’re rich, your freedom is precious and deserves to be defended; if you’re not, just be glad for the handouts you get and stop using words that mean nothing to you. Consider how important it is to them that Israel’s freedom is safeguarded, and what they really want the Palestinians to be — free, or just quietly submissive. Not that one is being critical here; people who live in glass houses can’t be. Look at the shameless way India cosies up to the generals in Myanmar. One is merely setting out some facts, shorn of the rhetoric that they’re usually served up with.

But something else has happened in recent years that has to do with the concept of freedom in the US. One could say that it was set off by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September, 2001, but it’s more likely that the process had begun before that. This is the slow transmutation of the concept to include military power. Freedom without power has begun to be seen as no freedom at all; put another way, true freedom is seen to grow out of the barrel of a gun.

In the name of combating terrorism — the other complex word — the US president has promulgated an order that now makes it possible for a non-US national to be detained without a warrant, to be denied a lawyer, or knowledge of the reason for his detention, to be tried by a military court where he cannot examine witnesses or cross-examine any, and then to be punished with death. It sounds like something out of Kafka but it isn’t; it is a presidential order in the US.

And this is not all. President George W. Bush now seeks powers to be able to strike anyone he considers an enemy first; and an enemy is not only another country but any organization or group, and anyone aspiring to acquire military capability which may equal that of the US. There is no question of self-defence any more; Bush has now made it clear that he wants the US to hit anyone it wants to in whatever way it wants to.

No one will disagree with the urgent need in the US to get the powers and the ability to take on terrorists wherever they may be. Terrorists, as commonly understood, are no believers in freedom, nor in justice or anything other than their murderous creed of violence and death. And they have to be dealt with ruthlessly, as everyone will agree. What this means is that the world’s superpower has a very great responsibility not only to act but to uphold, more rigorously than others and without compromise, the values of freedom and justice. Perhaps it will; one fervently hopes it will.

Except that it isn’t quite what it seems to be doing. Today Bush is determined to hit Iraq. And Americans told me, and, would you believe it, in hushed tones in the middle of New York City late last year itself, that he will most certainly bomb Iraq. Not for the oil, not because Iraq is harbouring terrorists, but because he wants to get even with them for having tried to kill “Daddy”. Naturally, the words of a few Americans mean little; but it is an indication of how some of them think, and their number is, according to what one gathered, not small.

And we have the facts to go by. What exactly has made Bush turn away from Osama bin Laden and al Qaida to Saddam Hussein' How has he suddenly discovered that Saddam has the capability to make nuclear, biological and chemical weapons' And if he has discovered this capability, is it not normal to talk to the man' But, more than all that, what has happened to the much vaunted hunt for Osama bin Laden and terrorists the world over' Has hammering the taliban satisfied President Bush’s desire to punish terrorists' The answers to these questions are quite frightening in their lack of reason and logic. The power of the magnitude Bush now has must breed a recklessness, and it is inevitable that the world holds its breath as it waits to see, in the words of Mark Antony, who else must be let blood, who else is rank.

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