Frames of terror

Frames of terror

Lead Review

Frames of terror

Evidence of suspicion: A writer’s report on the war on terror
Amitava Kumar
Picador, 2010,
pp 223, Rs 350

“Hate was just a failure of the imagination,” wrote Greene. In his ‘writer’s report on the war on terror’ — Evidence of Suspicion, Amitava Kumar explains Greene’s vision as a “belief that detail and voice, and all that we think of as face, will deliver the whole human to you, and with it the whole humanity.” This assessment is also the key to his thesis.
Kumar seeks a way out of generalisations and stereotypes in the narrative of terrorism post 9/11. Evidence... abstracts terror from the unique angles of its alleged perpetrators’ lives. It strikes at the formidable wall of clichés, to enhance your field of vision, as also the possibility of building “new stories with many exits, U-turns and destinations,” as Kumar puts it. Kumar does not attempt any one conclusion. Instead, details are his end. He intends to leave you in their high seas until you can barely remember the view from the top.

It is not as if we have not heard subversive voices yet, but Evidence... is not just interested in meaning well. It steers clear of convenient debates between secular/ fanatic, east/west, guilty/innocent, truth/falsehood; forcing a re-examination of these terms by applying them to specific circumstances. 

The book begins in the living room of Iqbal Haspatel in Walavati, Maharashtra, a man arrested and tortured for possessing a ‘missile’ that turned out to be a part of textile machinery. The dark absurdity of his story told in a soft humane voice, leads to two sections, one each on Lakhani and Siraj, Indian and Pakistani migrants respectively, serving time in America for allegedly abetting potential terror attacks.

Similar stories of other detainees are incorporated to dwell on a very wide range of questions. Questions like, who do we imagine when we talk about a terrorist? Who created that image? Where is the line between uncovering criminal intent and manufacturing it? What is the purpose of torture? What is the point of protest art and literature if it is moving anyone but those who wield the gun? What must the trial of a terror suspect include in its scope? Should it be any different from routine criminal trials? Can there be a non-biased jury post 9/11 in America? When does an act of dissent become an act of terror? Who defines patriotism in a shrinking global village? And above all, who is a terrorist? Can a theorist or tourist who visits its world briefly be labelled one? If, yes then what is the future of individual thought and opinion?  

Reasonable voice
But for Haspatel and Geelani, most of Kumar’s subjects have had a brush, however slight, with terror. This helps Kumar bring us to a grey area which he explores through 9/11 art, literature, commentary and prosecutions, laid out as reportage peppered with philosophy and psychology. His own insight peaks when he speaks of 9/11 literature, Bollywood’s depiction of terrorists, and the subliminal heartbreak in the stories of victims of a war on terror that vilifies them. His descriptions of the visual arts, on the other hand serve only to texturise nuances, without critically evaluating the canon.  
Also missing is an insider’s detailing of the politics and predicament of India in the current clash, given its distinct and difficult history, familiar with conflicts that are only now emerging in the Western consciousness, and demanding that our society’s psychological and the state’s strategic responses differ significantly from America’s despite surface similarities in rights violations. The chapters on Kashmir fit in uneasily with the rest. Elementary in their introduction of the problem itself, they work only as honest personal accounts of the trials of a journalist putting together his material from unpredictable sources. 

Yet, it is the subjective takes that glue his very diverse material. His voice is reasonable, even when impassioned and method meticulous. Its greatest quality is its humanity, in both its compassion and humility. Kumar is careful never to instruct his readers.
He also knows where to draw the line at evoking sympathy. Identification with victims, distinct from us in many ways, can get self-indulgent and overwhelm constructive analysis. Balance is key to his narrative, but not as an attempt at objective ‘fairness’, for Kumar’s own politics of protest is never concealed. Instead balance helps to retain the character of his journey in search of ambiguities. This is part of the reason, along with fine journalistic tenor, that makes the book accessible for everyman.

His construction of a world where there are no villains, only victims, at least among the real people who conduct or suffer the daily machinations of this war; his attempt to draw out the minds of the agents of the state along side his subjects, might have a bearing on the solutions we look for. Absent from the schema though is the perspective — the pressures and motivations, of the state itself, i.e. it’s decisive top brass.

So, the book is only about people. And that links up with it confining its scope to two of the largest democracies in the world. There are worse injustices elsewhere, but there isn’t a greater tragedy than the denial of rights and liberties in a democracy, because it is our highest aspiration in governance. When it fails, people have failed people, which includes you and me. If it is time for greater participation by the people, for the people, the first step is the kind of understanding this book facilitates.

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