| Ghosts of the future
After Iraq, two pictures refuse to go away. One is that of a twelve-year-old boy with a hideously burnt torso and two bandaged stumps where his arms had been, an unlined face and steady eyes. The face of collateral damage, embarrassing, if reports are to be believed, to Tony Blair. Embarrassing. And another picture — of a man carrying away a richly upholstered chair from one of Saddam Hussein’s magnificent abodes, his face obscured by the splendour of the loot. He is faceless, as is fitting — a figure engendered in the chaos unleashed by greed.
Yet the terms of this description are absurd, anachronistic, for we have moved far away from the theatre of the old morality play. Civilization has taken giant steps forward, even al Qaida killers do not use scimitars to kill. It is possible, for those so privileged, to use atom bombs, but the progressive refinement of sensibility manifested since Hiroshima and Nagasaki now dictates the deployment of precisely targeted missiles, and civilly restrained tanks and guns, together with a few chosen words of regret for collateral damage. We can therefore be much more upfront about things. “War is shooting and shagging, screwing and killing,” a young man back from the Serbo-Croat conflict is supposed to have announced. Looting, he might have added. But his mind was taken up with the most obvious associations in specifically male violence, killing and rape.
The comment has been quoted by Dubravka Ugrešic, a writer living in Amsterdam in self-imposed exile from former Yugoslavia. Her article, “Because we’re just boys”, is part of the collection entitled Terror Counter-Terror: Women Speak Out, edited by Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma (Kali for Women, 2003). Writings by activists, journalists, teachers, authors and researchers from Palestine and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, the United States of America, Britain and Canada, Afghanistan and Israel have been brought together to expose and analyse the masculinist ethos that permeates all forms of imperialism, terrorism and fundamentalism — that is, the relationship between patriarchy and violence. “War, peace, terrorism, most fundamentalisms and fascisms are contracts between men,” says the publisher’s note, and since both peace and terror are “ultimately about power”, it is “one reason why women, traditionally, have been part of neither war nor peace, except as ancillaries.”
The occasion for the volume is the attack on the World Trade Center, and the twin towers shimmer as changing images throughout the book — interlocked symbols, sometimes of American military and economic might, sometimes of the mutually opposed but inextricably coexistent phenomena of state and non-state terror. It is, as Rohini Hensman says, “a cosy relationship…best exemplified by the business association of Bush the father with bin Laden the father in the Carlyle Group, whose investments in armaments could mean that both fathers profit from the war declared by their sons!”
Inevitably, the book goes far beyond its focal theme of masculinity and militarism, laying bare the network of economic, political and ideological interests that bind together the initiators of aggression. What emerges is a picture of the perpetrators of a new reign of terror, racism, sectarianism and inequity, who, with their propaganda machinery, frighten, confuse and brainwash people. So civil liberties can be eroded through newer patriot acts or Prevention of Terrorism Acts, through racial and communal profiling, while the myth of The Enemy is rammed down people’s throats in order to dominate, grab and exterminate in the name of democracy, salvation, freedom, justice, security, love of country or god.
One reads all this with a sinking feeling after the events in Iraq. The apparent irrelevance of the unprecedented anti-war movement across the world seems to shadow forth another set of interlocked but opposed twin towers: governments and their people. The abyss in between resounds with the hollow roar of a newly constructed language, deeply corrupted in order to exclude the simple meanings of words like “No blood for oil, no war at all”. Rubina Saigol foresees this when talking about 9/11: “Those who construct knowledge and hold the power of making meaning, seized the moment to forever alter the way the world thinks about war, terror, rights, justice, legality and life itself.”
But such a change did not happen in a day. The corruption of language is the fruit of sustained effort on both sides of the thin red line. The result contributes to a major form of collateral damage, an impalpable one, that of dissidence. In a world suddenly peopled by Us and Them, a world created by an era of unrelenting violence and escalating fear, there is no space for a third voice. Susan Sontag asks why “debate equals dissent, and dissent equals lack of patriotism now”. And Sontag is no pacifist, neither does she agree with a position such as Noam Chomsky’s. Yet she has been called “America hater”, “moral idiot” and “traitor” for asking why the men who rammed the WTC were “cowardly” and the men who bombed Kosovo from an unreachable height were brave. Sunera Thobani, the Canadian critic who thought she had spoken pure common sense, was called morally bankrupt.
Just two examples are enough to typify a worldwide phenomenon: the silencing of debate. Barbara Lee was a minority of one in the American house of representatives when she voted against giving the president power for military attacks. Subsequently, she needed more bodyguards. The violence that dissent now attracts is born of the recently substantiated meanings of “national security”, “the greater good”, or “patriotism”. Democracy is destined to mirror its declared enemy, religious fundamentalist rule.
The stifling, or at least, marginalization, of dissent in India has been achieved through the identification of majoritarianism with patriotism. The US’s “war on terror”, with its shadowy enemy, Islam, provided the perfect backdrop of global approval for the pogrom in Gujarat. The editors validate this connection with Anuradha M. Chenoy’s article which discusses the strategy of establishing communal supremacy through targeted violence against women, often by women. The spectacle of hatred, captured forever in the image of two huge structures tumbling down, has legitimized all spectacles and acts of violent domination by the state. Where racism does not work, sectarianism will.
The rationale of power and gain demands the fanning of the irrational. It is possible to find an eerie replication, although on a different scale, of the rush of investors and businessmen to Gujarat after the triumphant return of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the world’s anxiety to share the spoils of the “reconstruction” of Iraq. The stakes in muffling and outlawing that third voice are very high. So if the irrepressible genius of language generates “illegal combatant” in the West, it comes up with “pseudo-secularist” in the East. As the writers in the volume keep reiterating, there is no middle way.
Yet they, and others, not just women, go on, because a way will have to be forged by the pseudo-secularists, the “peaceniks”, perhaps the illegal combatants. The association here is not unthinking, for anti-violence does not necessarily equal pacifist in the sense of consciously passive. Peace is not a pacific word. Nor is it a woolly feeling. It is the cerebral, political and economic content of peace that this volume investigates.
But why only women' The militarization of women, whether in Tamil death squads in Sri Lanka or among the Hindu right in India, prove that women are not “naturally” peaceable. Madeleine Albright is not an exception, women possessed of greater power have put men to shame by their active interest in perpetrating or perpetuating violence. Power is the leveller of gender differences. Will women, once empowered, be as violent and warlike as men' But that is a question that must be left to the future.
For the moment, as the writers point out, most women remain disempowered; they are the worst victims of political and religious violence very often carried out in their name. Always left out in peacetime negotiations — the Afghan women “rescued” from the taliban found no place in the loya jirga — they still have the greatest stake in peace.
And disempowerment is also a kind of power. It provides the interest and the insight to dissect, expose and dissent. When women argue or disagree, the attack against them is phrased in gender abuse. In specific cases, gender is combined with colour, caste or class, whichever is relevant. For these “illegal combatants”, and their kindred among men, it is more urgent than ever now to find a way between the two towers.