Paris attacks: Why war against terror can never lead to a victory
It is this devil inside us that has to be vanquished.
On the night of the Paris massacre, I was still in Delhi, asleep, a few hours away from my departure back to Paris. There was a text message ring on my French cell. I didn't bother to check. Seconds later, there was another. I checked the first message: "Ashwin from Times Now (a popular Indian TV news channel). Can we have you on Skype on the situation in Paris?"
I had no idea about the situation he was speaking of, I was fast asleep, talking to the birds of paradise. A cold shudder began to invade my spine - What's it now? Another Charlie Hebdo? Another plane ploughed into the Alps? I stumbled out of the darkness of my bedroom and switched on my capricious internet connection which had of late been working like a strobe light. All I remember then is a staccato of words being fired out at me from the screen - Le Bataclan, Le Carillon, Kalach', terrorists, Bichat, café, terrace... As images of the Bombay massacre in 2008 began to play and replay in the half-darkness of my mind, it didn't take long to conclude that this was a cold, calculated and bloody attack on the very idea that makes Paris, Paris - liberty, sensuality, pleasure. For a man who had first moved to Paris, charmed by the promise of André Breton's trinity of "Liberty, Love, Poetry", I could not but feel that this was an attack on my own being. Almost uncontrollably, I recited to myself, aloud, lines from Paul Eluard's "Liberty" :
- "On the window of surprises
- On a pair of expectant lips
- In a state far deeper than silence
- I write your name".
A few hours later, I was back in Paris, and the first thing my wife and I did was to take the metro to Bataclan and the ravaged cafés in the area. It was reassuring to observe the unbelievable sense of dignity and calm that reigned almost everywhere we went. Candles flickered, bouquets of flowers on the ground below, gazed moistly at the people around them; beautiful snippets of poetry offered their words to wisdom to the madness of history. In this world of spiralling violence, it was comforting to see that there was not one message or poem that called out for vendetta.
But when a resolute and martial François Hollande announced that night that France was at war and that French war planes would soon be intensifying their attacks in Syria, I thought this was the time for some reflection or, at any rate, for a calculated and reflective action. Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest apostle of peace and non-violent resistance, who gave his life to the bullet of a vile fanatic, once said: "An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind." These were not just the idle preachings of an old sage, there was a reason behind why he said it. And I would like to share it with you.
In a moment of helpless search for instinctive justice, revenge is not just a bad companion, it is even an enemy: it often brings more harm and horror to this bleeding earth. Revenge blinds us to the fact that the sun will again rise tomorrow. So, when France has the solidarity and sympathy of a large part of the world, wouldn't justice be a better goal than vendetta? A just state or a just human being can never, even in the name of liberty and justice, condescend to the level of scheming and heartless murderers. In the war between good and evil, good must necessarily rise above the other. Otherwise, in the eyes of history and infinite time, it just becomes another war becomes two forms of violence, the twin faces of the same vileness. Prophets are prophets, of whatever religion, because they were seen to rise above the base instincts of man.
There is another reason to oppose vengefulness, and that lies in the peculiar nature of the new enemy - terrorism. It is faceless, invisible, scattered, not easily identifiable. It does not have the classical shape of a country or a people, as some might wrongly believe. It might seem to reside in faraway lands but it also lives amongst, and around, us. It is a vast Chernobyl-esque cloud of reckless anger that is scattered all over our planet - everywhere, over each country and each land.
The new enemy is equally a terrible devil sitting inside man, someone who escapes death even after being killed. You kill it here, it's born there; you kill it there, it's born somewhere else... Gandhi once said: "I have three enemies - the British, the Indians, and myself." Yes, it is this devil inside man that has to be vanquished and it can be, but only through a long soul-searching process of active reflection and action.
As we search for the devil inside us, we must also improve the human condition outside, which in the first place pushes people towards mindless acts of inhumanity. I hate to say this but the people who were pumping bullets into a crowd of innocent young boys and girls that night were also pumping them into themselves. So the question to ask is: How can some people accept to become human bombs when you and I will not?
Many years ago, I wrote a book on the Punjab extremism in India, on the young boys gone mad and the not-so-young politicians in the government gone mad, both equally vengeful. At the end of the book, I came to a small conclusion: "The world is based on a fundamental premise that man fears death. A terrorist, at the point of his lightening-strike, conquers this fear of death and hence demolishes the very premise of universal existence. A terrorist terrorises, for he changes the very points of reference of human life... When we have managed to create a planet where some people see no value in life, terrorism becomes the lamentably logical product of history."
Who were these young boys I met and spent time with through my research for this book? To be honest, outside their acts of horror, they could have looked like you or me. They were young, ambitious, arrogant, semi-educated, of rural origin, bursting with hatred against the people in power whom they blamed for a million wrongs. They were perspectiveless, like the children of history lost on the road of life, until one day they came across a half-militant half-priest who offered them the promise of martyrdom in the name of a self-interpreted religion. The boys, whom the life had given nothing, joined him, preferring martyrdom in heaven to the hell on earth. A terrorist was thus born...
How do you handle this man when he reaches out for mindless inhuman violence? Of course, strict and prompt legal action must be taken if life has to go on, on this earth and a perpetrator of terrorist violence must be brought to justice - and the sooner the better. But punitive state action must simultaneously be accompanied by equally effective gestures of friendship and tolerance within the civil society, towards the concerned communities. In that sense, particularly in France, intégration (cultural assimilation) has to be a two-way process, where both learn from each other the beauty of the other.
But can you wage a war against terrorism, against an invisible enemy which, after all, finds its roots in not that invisible a reality? Can that war ever lead to victory? Do you know of any such victories in history that have survived over a few years? Has not George Bush's war on terrorism only globalised the malaise? One of the poetic snippets I spoke of above, said: "If war is answer, change the question."
The truth is that just as the world has globalised, so has pain, anger, deprivation. One cannot afford to live in isolation the way we did before. Our shock and grief have reached that part of the world, just as theirs, for different tragedies, must reach us. The only long-term answer to this global phenomenon of terrorism is a sincere effort on our part to understand if this curse is not the consequence of our own - American, Israeli, Russian, Indian, French or whoever - deeds and, then, to rectify our errors. And, then, of course, and that's the most important, let us work together towards a world where people value life and see some purpose in it. Violence can perhaps never be eradicated from this earth, for the angel and the demon both inhabit us. But violence can certainly be contained in a society where people realise the futility and horror of it...