An Age of Terror and Forgetting
by Ranbir Sidhu
A review of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar
Duke University Press. 2010. 217 pages.
Among the many symptoms of living in an age of a perpetual war on terrorism is amnesia. There are times we forget when it began, and for those growing up in this age, I can only imagine that it has the shopworn quality of grim permanency that those of us who came of age in the Cold War once felt. That war had no beginning, not in our lifetimes at least, and it sure felt like it never would have an end, except the most ugly, in nuclear annihilation. The fears must be different today. Instead of global extinction, the destruction children probably fear is localized and personal. A terrorist bomb will blow up their world.
It is the curiously personal nature of the war on terror that sets it apart from other wars. For not only is the destruction we fear personal, but the killers themselves are few in number, walk potentially among us, and every few months, one of them emerges in a grainy surveillance image or mug shot or threatening video. Perhaps this is just the natural progression. In the 80s, it was the Me Generation, and in the 90s, the Army of One. Do we need now to personalize what in the past we had demonized as foreign hordes? Or have our enemies come to understand the unsettling power of an individual whose sole stated aim is to do nothing but wreak havoc?
There is another kind of amnesia at play. For as these faces appear at night on our television screens, they just as quickly disappear, vanishing from thought and memory. Some are convicted, some are killed, and about some we have no idea what happens. Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb resurrects some of these faces, as if from the dead, and in doing so, helps chart the ever-changing geography of this new world and also how it distorts our basic everyday moralities and is reshaping how we think about ourselves and how we construct images of others.
Organized around two FBI sting operations conducted in the US, Kumar tells the stories of Hemant Lakhani and Matin Siraj, both hapless and seemingly lost in their adoptive country, though in quite different ways. Lakhani was a failed businessman who was persuaded by a government informant, a failed businessman himself, to attempt to order up to fifty anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to be used against commercial aircraft in the US. What’s striking in the Lakhani case is that under no circumstances would he have been able to procure the weapons himself, let alone use them. He didn’t even know how to hold one when it was produced. The FBI led him by the nose, secretly shipping one weapon themselves, and the picture that emerges is of a bitter, self-serving failure, and easy prey for an informant looking for a big paycheck and FBI operatives looking for a splashy headline. That his arrest and conviction in no way served to make the US more secure should be worrying, because it also pulled resources away from the actual, and more difficult, task of searching out individuals intent on destruction.
In Siraj’s case, the plot involved planting bombs at the 34th Street/Herald Square subway station. In this case too, the government played a heavy hand in leading Siraj from his own anger at what he perceived were American crimes to a willingness to act, though his complicity here seems clearer. Siraj is an even sadder case. In tapes of his conversations with informants, he says he is willing to help in an attack, but that he must ask his mother’s permission first, and continually we are confronted with a man who clearly does not seem to be fully aware of what he is signing up for, and that he lacks the basic intelligence to understand this.
The stories of both men enter to varying degrees the legal and moral gray zone of government entrapment. Neither man was anywhere near capable of carrying out their threats, and it is very likely that neither would even have imagined attempting such actions had they not been approached by informants. The informants in both instances have strong motives to bring in a conviction, as do the federal officers and the picture Kumar paints is of a new legal and police enforcement landscape where all parties involved are encouraged to collude in willing blindness so long as an imagined victory is delivered. “After the attacks of September 11, 2001,” Kumar writes, “all around us the world has been retooling itself to define the public interest, but only in a limited, perverse way as a global ecology of anti-terrorism.”
More broadly, it is the landscape of what has happened to our perceptions of our basic rights in the wake of 9/11 and how individuals, especially contemporary artists, have responded that is Kumar’s subject. All wars reduce the enemy to a caricature. What is different here is that with such an ill-defined enemy, we are finding ourselves redefining whole classes of people as potential murderers. Kumar writes, “A distancing optic allows individuals and families to blur into whole communities and nations.” Lives and social structures are being distorted to the point of unrecognizability.
He doesn’t limit himself to the US, but also looks at India, which has modeled its own war on terror on the American version, as if it has bought its own franchise. Here especially, countless innocents have found their lives destroyed by the state in unmistakable miscarriages of justice and Kumar’s book acts as a worthy reminder of the what is we are doing to ourselves as we build our new surveillance states.
I doubt anyone can write coherently on the war on terror, or whatever it’s being called today. Kumar’s attempt is a worthy one, and speaks to one of the central problems of writing about this war. What the war actually is, the battlefield, the players, when it started, what will define how it ends, who we are fighting and who is fighting us, what it is we are even fighting for– all of these questions, and many more, remain ill-defined and their answers, when given, highly politicized. Any attempt to navigate this territory becomes necessarily narrow, and the attendant frustrations– accusation without solution, polemic without a balancing nuance– are commonplace, and are found in abundance in Kumar’s book.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it, and Kumar often seems to be saying as much. We are, after all, in the middle of this war. For all we know, we might still be in the early years, especially if the doomsayers of the necessity of unending war prove true. As I read Kumar’s book, I found myself see-sawing between shared indignation at the abuses he points to and annoyance at the occasional narrowness and parochialism of his political stance. I suppose what I wanted most, and missed, was the author’s personal journey through this territory. If the war on terror dehumanizes the individual, what better way to humanize it than place oneself inside its story.
Kumar did this beautifully in a previous work, Husband of a Fanatic, which charts his journey as a Hindu from India married to a Muslim from Pakistan. Here, he offers it only near the end, in a moving story about meeting an old family friend, Colonel Prakash, who is serving in the Indian Army in Kashmir, a region which has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily militarized place on the planet. The sad, drunken, maudlin encounter with a man who has been destroyed is beautifully told, as is Kumar’s growing frustration and anger. Torture remains commonplace in Kashmir, and it’s torture of a very bloody degree, where few survive intact, and for years Colonel Prakash has been sleepwalking through these soul-killing territories. The picture Kumar paints makes me wonder how many such Colonels our war on terror is breeding, and in addition to all the lives it is snuffing out, how many souls are dying in the process.
The modern calculus that shifts us from a sense of worldwide destruction to personal destruction has consequences. During the Cold War, we were in it together. We would all live, or we would all die. Today, we watch nervously as the zones of destruction are shifted as far from us as possible. A million Iraqis might die, several thousand GIs, but I won’t. Our only comfort is a neurotic’s comfort. If we are to live with ourselves, it requires us to forget the price we are paying for what we imagine is our lives.