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Understand the whispers

Rajeev Bhargava
18 September 2001

In India, as elsewhere, every person understood the cry for help: the horror and fear writ large on terror stricken faces, the trauma in the choked voices of people who saw it happen, the hopeless struggle to control an imminent breakdown in public, the unspeakable grief. For one moment, the pain and suffering of others became our own.

In a flash, everyone recognised what is plain but easily forgotten – that inscribed in our personal selves is not just our separateness from others but also sameness with them, that despite all socially constructed differences of language, culture, religion, nationality, perhaps even race, caste and gender, we share something in common. Amidst terror, acute vulnerability and unbearable sorrow, it was not America alone that rediscovered its lost solidarity. In these cataclysmic events, all people across the globe reclaim their common humanity.

As we empathised with those who escaped or witnessed death, and relived the traumatic experience of those who lost their lives, we knew a grave, irreparable wrong done to individuals, killed, wounded or traumatised by the sudden loss of family and friends. These individuals were not just subjected to physical hurt or mental trauma, they were recipients and carriers of a message embodied in that heinous act. From now on they must live with a dreadful sense of their own vulnerability. This message was transmitted first to other individuals in New York and Washington, then quickly to citizens throughout the democratic world. The catastrophe on the east coast has deepened the sense of insecurity of every individual on this planet.

However, this was not the only message sent by the perpetrators. Others are revealed when we focus on our collective identities, or, rather, on the collective dimensions of the tragedy that unfolded on that terrible Tuesday. These messages are disturbingly ambivalent, morally fuzzy. They are less likely to sift good from evil, more likely to divide than unite people across the world.

One such message which the poor, the powerless and the culturally marginalised would like communicated to the rich, powerful and the culturally dominant is this: we have grasped that any injustice done to us is erased before it is seen or spoken about; that in the current international social order, we count for very little; our ways of life are hopelessly marginalised, our lives utterly valueless.

Even middle-class Indians with cosmopolitan aspirations became painfully aware of this when a countrywide list of missing or dead persons was flashed on an international news channel: hundreds of Britons, scores of Japanese, some Germans, three Australians, two Italians, one Swede. A few buttons away, a South Asian channel lists names of several hundred missing or dead Indians, while another flashes the names of thousands with messages of their safety to relatives back home.

Intangible wounds

Hard as it is to talk of this right now, it must be acknowledged that the attacks on New York and Washington were also meant to lower the collective self-esteem of Americans, to rupture their pride. Not all intentional wrong-doing is physically injurious to the victim, but every intentionally generated physical suffering is invariably accompanied by intangible wounds. The attack on 11 September did not merely demolish concrete buildings and individual people. It tried to destroy the American measure of its own self-worth, to diminish the self-esteem of Americans.

Quite separate from the immorality of physical suffering caused, isn’t this attempt itself morally condemnable? Yes, if the act further lowers the self-worth of people with little enough. But this is hardly true of America, where the ruling elite ensures that its collective self-worth borders supreme arrogance, always over the top. Does not the Pentagon symbolise this false collective pride?

Amidst this carnage, then, is a sobering thought. It occurs more naturally to poor people of powerless countries. Occasionally, even the mighty can be humbled. In such societies, the genuine anguish of people at disasters faced by the rich is mixed up with an unspeakable emotion which, on such apocalyptic occasions, people experience only in private or talk about only in whispers.

I have spoken of two dimensions to the message hidden in the mangled remains of the destruction of 11 September. The moral horror of the individual dimension of the carnage is unambiguous and overwhelming. But as we pause to examine its collective dimension, a less clear, more confusing moral picture emerges. How, on balance, after putting together these two dimensions, do we evaluate this more complicated moral terrain?

The answer has to be swift and unwavering. For now, the focus must remain on the individual and the humanitarian. To shift our ethical compass in the direction of the collective weakens the moral claims of the suffering and the dead. This is plainly wrong. Nor is it enough to make merely a passing reference to the tragedy of individuals, a grudging concession before the weightier political crimes of a neo-imperial state are considered. The moral claims of individuals are currently supreme.

But we cannot permanently screen off the collective dimension. To do so would obstruct our understanding of how tragedies of individuals can be prevented in future; in any case, in the long run it extends another already existing moral wrong.

Victim must not turn perpetrator

From all accounts, the victims in America have reacted with quiet dignity in the face of overwhelming grief. But there is also a growing moral revulsion and perhaps an understandable expression of the need for vengeance. Even as some people unfairly, even preposterously, become the victims of this newest hatred, the American president has promised revenge.

Can anything be wrong with hating ruthless strategists who achieve their political goals by the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians? How can it be wrong for a woman to hate the rapist who has permanently scarred her, or for victims to hate leaders or organisers of mobs that lynched them?

At issue here is not the feeling of an intense desire to hurt others in order to gain advantage for oneself. Of course, malicious hatred is obnoxious. But those who hate the perpetrators of the carnage on 11 September are not driven by malice or spite. Hating the wrongdoer is not morally inappropriate. If so, it must be morally permissible to desire to hurt the wrongdoer. It is extremely abnormal if self-respecting persons do not experience righteous anger, even hatred towards those who have wronged them. There must be some room in our moral topography for what the philosopher Jeffrie Murphy calls retributive hatred.

Yet it may not be wise or morally appropriate for victims to act on these feelings. It is imprudent because retaliatory action sparks off escalating cycles of revenge and reciprocal violence. Retaliation by the US and counter retaliation will almost certainly plunge the entire world into greater suffering, pain, vulnerability and insecurity. Revenge can unleash even greater tragedies.

How do we make sure that today’s victims do not become tomorrow’s perpetrators of much worse? What if the original motive of revenge unravels an unappeasable thirst for violence? If lessons of history teach us anything at all, it is that the barbaric acts of one group solicit equally barbaric acts from others. No matter on whom the first blow was struck, if our aim is to terminate barbarism, then, it must be stalled now, suddenly, and abruptly. In the shifting sands of the complex ethic at work here, the entire moral advantage rests with victims of the immediate crime. If the vision that generally motivates them is to come good eventually, it is best, all things considered, to forgo the temptation to act on retributive hatred and feelings of vengeance.

Retribution, not revenge

To restrain vengeful motives is wise for another reason. Undoubtedly, the massacre on the east coast is motivated by the desire to question the economic, political and cultural supremacy of the USA in a radically unequal world. If and when the mightiest nation in the world retaliates, it will not be to grant equal status to offenders. It is rather more likely that, by a massive display of strength, they will be shoved further back in their less than equal place. The not so hidden text of American retaliation will be an abject lesson to all to never again dare American supremacy.

Will it surprise anyone if a disproportionate and symbolic show of force to maim and crush the enemy flows from the very same motive of vengeance? It is true, of course, that some acts of revenge are the wellspring of equality and refute claims of supremacy by wrongdoers. However, the spectacular show of violence on 11 September and in the days to come is likely to reveal a different, warped logic of alternating claims of superiority.

We need retribution for sure, but not revenge. In the days to come, we must not be forced to witness ghost towns in other parts of the world with more terror-stricken faces, choked voices, desperately crying for help. American might must be restrained, perpetrators must be brought to book in an international court of justice and tried for crimes against humanity, our common humanity.

This would just be a beginning. To set a larger process of reconciliation in motion, the messages of marginalised collectives hidden under the gruesome rubble of Tuesday’s destruction must be decoded and discussed by moderates from all over the world. Only by properly understanding the social, cultural and spiritual basis of self-respect in our troubled times can we ever begin to address the problems violently thrown at us on 11 September.

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