To escape from religious persecution in their own country, a Russian couple migrated to the United States of America towards the beginning of the 20th century. They were overwhelmed by the friendliness with which they were received in the new country. The US was the land of liberty and of opportunities, but it was, at the same time, also the land of equality and freedom of thought. The couple begot two sons in the second decade of the century. They had developed a great admiration for the free-flowing idealism in Walt Whitman's revolutionary outpourings; they were equally inspired by the clarion call for a socialist system given by the great American ideologue, Eugene Victor. They named one son Walt Whitman Rostow, the other was Eugene Victor Rostow. As it happened, both sons shone in the grove of academe. Walt Rostow got better known because of his theoretical formulation of the economics of take-off.
History however, manufactures its own irony. Walt Rostow became one of John Kennedy's close advisers after the latter was elected president. He and General Mark Taylor were joint authors of Kennedy's strategy to napalm Vietnam out of the earth's surface. The person who bore Walt Whitman's noble name, took pride as being one of the principal architects of the killings and pillage the Vietnamese were subjected to.
There is little point in spending time lamenting over such twists in personal destinies. Of much greater significance are the about-turns a nation's pattern of behaviour undergoes from time to time. Till the end of World War II, despite occasional aberrations, the US was considered to be a bastion of liberalism: tolerance for all, sympathy for the cause of the ill-treated and underprivileged, supportive of the rights of people everywhere to determine on their own the contour and content of their life and living. Men and women around the world used to quote from the American declaration of independence. They would pay homage to Abraham Lincoln for the initiative he took to abolish slavery. In the view of generations of the country's black population, the text of his Gettysburg address was worthy of the same reverence as is accorded to the text of the Testaments.
As time straddled into the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal provided succour and relief to the nation's destitutes and unemployed. Still later, the Four Freedoms he enunciated were thought to have sounded the death knell of colonialism in different continents in the post-war decades. His wife, Eleanor, was even more progressive in her instincts and reflexes and more vocal in her sympathies for the deprived and the underprivileged wherever they were.
These recountings of an ancient saga are necessary in the context of the official US reaction to the decisive victory the Hamas party has registered in the elections in Palestine. The polls were organized under the supervision of observers named by the United Nations and none ' not even the Americans ' have complained of any hanky-panky. The Palestinians have expressed, in the clearest of terms, their support for the principles and course of action the Hamas intends to pursue to advance the Palestinian cause. This party has till now been treated as pariah because it had abstained in the past in taking part in democratic elections. Now that it has changed its mind, participated in the polls and won a thumping victory, those who describe themselves as representing 'the international community' have begun to sing a different tune. The Hamas party, the Israeli government has gone on record, consists of a bunch of terrorists with whom they are not prepared to hold any talks, never mind the electoral verdict. President George W. Bush has been equally quick in his response: unless these hoodlums abjure violence, they cannot be invited to the negotiating table.
It is a far cry from the Abraham Lincoln era or, to go back even further, from the Boston Tea-party mayhem. The contemporary American lexicon has evolved new definitions of terrorism and violence ' any line of activity which does not have the approval of Washington D.C. is terrorism. The Hamas party would claim that it is fighting a war of national liberation, and by no stretch can its followers be described as terrorists. Was not the American war of independence a fight for national liberation, and did it not involve violence too' And what about George Bush's bosom friend, the Israeli prime minister, now felled by a cerebral attack' The US president might think him a great messenger of peace; the Palestinians, however, know him as the butcher of Shatila. Who is going to determine who is right' Or is it that George W. Bush, because he is the US president, is always right'
Some amongst the older generation would still remember the Harry Belafonte of the early Fifties. He was then a young man freshly arrived from the Caribbeans; he had a golden voice, and would sing full-throatedly, mingling cheer with sorrow, such wistful numbers as 'Jamaica Bay' or 'Coconut water is good for your daughter'. He charmed the Americans, and the US charmed him in turn. He has been always furthest away from any kind of political involvement. And yet, this same Harry Belafonte is now an indescribably angry man; he has not hesitated to go on record: the US President is, in his view, the world's greatest terrorist. Is he wrong in his assessment merely because George W. Bush would pronounce him to be wrong'
What is intensely worrisome is the insensitivity that has entered the American soul. The ordinary American appears to be less and less concerned each day about what happens to the rest of the world. Perhaps, even more frightening is the attitude of the Bush people spread across the American wilderness; they indeed love the concept of a worldwide US empire, where the American word is law and the American definition of terrorism is sacrosanct.
This is precisely where problems arise. Beyond a point, the rest of the world is not going to take the American hypothesis lying down any longer. After Iraq, George W. Bush's overarching ambition is conceivably to annex and annihilate Iran. But because of what was made to happen to Iraq, it would be much more difficult to destroy Iran. Resistance against what will be described as American terrorism will gather greater strength as the years roll by. With globalization, all national frontiers have turned porous; weapons of mass destruction will soon cease to be the monopoly of the Western powers. Even nuclear fission, some crystal-gazers insist, might soon be rendered a decentralized activity. Nuclear proliferation could then cook the goose of a great many impostors.
All of which will add up to a great tragedy. For, given the manner in which developments are taking place, George W. Bush might only succeed in converting Samuel Huntington's theory of a world riven by racial wars into a grim reality. The fallout of the cartoons some foolish newspapers in Denmark published indicates how far gone is the situation.
A final thought. In such a charged atmosphere, should some radical-minded Joneses in the US now choose to name their son Abraham Lincoln Jones, or their daughter Eleanor Roosevelt Jones, the Federal Bureau of Investigation might be after them, and detain them for interrogations for days on end.
This sardonic comment is, alas, no hyperbole. American state officialdom has reached such a state of acute paranoia that any casual visitor to that country bearing a Muslim name is immediately subjected to the most rigorous surveillance. It is only one stop from there to a situation where Americans of yore revered by foreigners begin to belong to the suspect categories, and it would be dangerous to be named after them.