Much has been said in recent days about the instability of Pakistan. But the danger lies not so much within the population as a whole, where religious extremists are a small minority (more confessional votes are cast in Israel than Pakistan), as within the Army. Officers and other ranks who have worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba in Kashmir have become infected with zealotry. At the same time native Islamists, aware of their weakness in the country, have focused their efforts on the Army. Estimates vary between 15 and 30 per cent: whatever the exact figure, these men will not look on in silence while their colleagues in Afghanistan are attacked from bases inside Pakistan. In Kashmir there has already been open opposition to the last ceasefire. An Islamist Pakistani captain refused to vacate Indian-held territory. A colonel despatched by the Pakistani High Command to order an immediate withdrawal was shot dead as a traitor to Islam. Already a partial wreck, Pakistan could be destroyed by a civil war.
The terrorists who carried out the killings in the US were not bearded illiterates from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were educated, middle-class professionals from Egypt and the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia, two key US allies in the region. What made them propagandists of the deed? The bombing of Iraq, economic sanctions, the presence of American Forces on Saudi soil. Politicians in the West have turned a blind eye to this, as they have to the occupation of Palestine and the crimes of Israel. Without profound change in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, is of little significance.
In the West, Saudi Arabia is simply a source of oil. We prefer not to notice the scale of social and religious oppression, the widespread dejection and anxiety, the growing discontent among Saudis. The Wahabbi Islam practised there has been the inspiration of the Taliban. It was the Saudi monarchy that funded fanaticism in South Asia; it was they (and the CIA) who sent bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Islam was seen by all the experts as the main bulwark against Communism. Denied any secular openings, dissenting graduates have turned to radical Islam, accusing the Saudi royal family of hypocrisy, corruption and subservience to America. These are clever tacticians, open in their admiration of bin Laden and the regime headed by his father-in-law, Mullah Omar, in Kabul. When they blow up bases or foreigners in the Kingdom, the security forces round up a few Pakistani or Filipino immigrants and execute them to show the US that justice has been done, but the real organisers are untouchable. Their tentacles reach into the heart of Saudi society, and it's debatable whether they can now cut them off, even at the request of the United States.
Manhattan that morning was a diagram, a blue bar-chart with columns which were tall or not so tall. A silver cursor passed across the screen and clicked silently on the tallest column, which turned red and black and presently vanished. This is how we delete you. The cursor returned and clicked on the second column. Presently a thing like a solid grey-white cauliflower rose until it was a mountain covering all south Manhattan. This is how we bury you.
It was the most open atrocity of all time, a simple demonstration written on the sky which everyone in the world was invited to watch. This is how much we hate you.
Six thousand lives: men and women and some children, Americans and foreigners, Christians and Jews and Taoists and Muslims and all those who asked a god to save them in the last minutes. Five thousand was a heavy task for the SS backshift at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the summer of 1944. Two or possibly three trainloads. But they could process that in an afternoon and evening, if they tried. The difference was that their killing was a secret. People living a few miles away could see tall towers which every few hours gushed flame-red and black. But they were not meant to know why. Once there was a time when the most evil people on earth were ashamed to write their crime across the heavens.
Now, too late, leaders are writing 'Retribution' on the clouds. Nothing good will come of that, and a choking fog of speeches and bulletins will fall between the dead and those who swear they will remember them. Auden wrote once of powers that direct us. He meant blind chance, but the poem also works for powers who wear suits and mount platforms:
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
In a telephone poll last week, readers of the Cambridge Evening News voted decisively against any military action aimed at those responsible for the attacks on the USA. A readership better known for its implacable hatred of joyriders on the A14 ('flogging would be too good for them') was having no truck with the cowboy President's plans for battle; still less with Prime Minister Blair's idea of dispatching our few remaining gunboats and jump-jets to cheer him on. This was just one of the domestic surprises that came in the wake of 11 September. Another was Peter Mandelson's strangely off-key suggestion that the secret services should be recruiting in Bradford rather than St James's (apparently on the grounds that immigrants would find it easier than Old Etonians to disguise themselves as Islamic extremists). But almost the oddest response has been our terrified certainty that there remains a plentiful supply of suicide pilots and bombers. Anyone who has scratched the surface of early Christianity will realise that full-blown martyrs are a rare commodity, much more numerous in the imagination than on the ground.
The horror of the tragedy was enormously intensified by the ringside seats we were offered through telephone answering machines and text-messages. But when the shock had faded, more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn't just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.
But there is also the feeling that all the 'civilised world' (a phrase which Western leaders seem able to use without a trace of irony) is paying the price for its glib definitions of 'terrorism' and its refusal to listen to what the 'terrorists' have to say. There are very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it. They do what they do for a cause; because they are at war. We might not like their cause; but using the word 'terrorism' as an alibi for thinking what drives it will get us nowhere in stopping the violence. Similarly, 'fanaticism', a term regularly applied to extraordinary acts of bravery when we abhor their ends and means. The silliest description of the onslaught on the World Trade Center was the often repeated slogan that it was a 'cowardly' attack.
It has been hard in the past twenty years for Americans to think about the United States and the world; and it is going to be harder now. Yet the terrible events of 11 September have alarmed us into reflection. Terrorism, religious orthodoxy, and nationalism of all kinds (insurgent as well as established) have become in our time inseparable companions: those who apologise for one thereby take on their conscience the crimes of the rest. If the US should seek to avenge these thousands with new thousands of innocent dead, it will be the response of a nation merely. I fear that we may do that, but hope that we will not. By what we do now, and what we refrain from doing, we ought to wish to be seen to act on behalf of the human nature from which the agents of terror have cut themselves off. In the days after the planes hit, the US appeared to be governed from New York, where the leaders of the city and the state all spoke in voices of dignity, compassion and deliberation. Those should be the examples our lawmakers bear in mind when they frame a policy of response in the days to come.
The news from the Middle East is not all bad. The savagery of the attacks on 11 September has, in at least one country, brought Muslim militancy into disrepute and swelled the ranks of the moderates. At the main public prayers in Tehran on 14 September, for the first time since the revolution in 1979, the cry of Marg bar Amrika, 'Death to America', was not to be heard. There have been candle-lit vigils for the American dead in Tehran squares and messages of sympathy from the Mayor of the city to the Mayor of New York. While Iran is not suddenly going to allow the US the use of airfields and harbours for missions against the suspects in Afghanistan, it is doing surprisingly little to hinder them. In the 22 years since the US diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran the Iranians have had ample time to consider the virtues of Islamic government and international isolation. Looking beyond their borders, they contemplate 'emirates of rubble' in Iraq and Afghanistan and count themselves lucky.
Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the 'Terrorists' (in the French-Revolutionary rather than the George-Bushian sense) have been losing ground in Iran. The Presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani were a slow-motion Thermidor. Since Muhammad Khatami was elected President in a landslide in 1997, Iran has stumbled towards accommodation, first with the Arab countries, then with Western Europe and even its old bugbear, Britain. Out on the horizon is the US.
The vast majority of Iranians have forgotten their grievance against the US, have shed many of their complexes about Western intrigue and want nothing more than to join the mainstream of world affairs. While Khatami's 'dialogue between the civilisations' sounds pale in the light of exploding buildings, it is the only thing on offer for those who don't want 'the war between the civilisations' that Osama bin Laden and others are seeking to inaugurate.
Rarely have both wings of what is known as The System in Iran moved in the same direction. Religious conservatives have doctrinal differences with Sheikh Osama and dislike the Taliban as a thorough regional nuisance. (Iran's Afghan policy has been as disastrous as everybody else's.) The chastened revolutionaries around Khatami see a 'historic opportunity' - that is the phrase that keeps recurring - to break out of their corner and restore relations with the United States. Women and young people, with their vigils for the American dead, express both an ardent sympathy for a loss they comprehend and an intense frustration with the stale taboos of a superannuated revolutionary culture. A raw and rattled US has responded with warmth. Iran, the first country into Islamic millenarian government in modern times, looks set to be the first out.
Last Tuesday morning, 11 September, I was planning on finishing up an LRB review I was writing - of a book called The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, by the medievalist Michel Pastoureau. Now, as I stagger numbly round my house in San Francisco, hardly able to read or eat or think, I don't know when I'll get back to it. Too bad, because, in any normal time, the book would be one worth mulling over. Pastoureau argues that over the centuries stripes (and striped clothing) have gone from being 'bad' to 'good'. In the Middle Ages many Western Europeans considered striped fabrics to be diabolical - mainly because they were associated with the infidel Saracens and Turks. When the Carmelites came back from a Crusade in 1254 wearing brown and white striped robes - a funky new fashion picked up in the Ottoman East - they were immediately made to renounce them by Papal edict. Medieval laws often required that social outcasts - thieves, traitors, prostitutes, lepers, madmen, hangmen - wear garish striped garments; in illuminated books, Biblical malefactors such as Judas and Cain were regularly depicted in striped robes and breeches. Stripes were for people who were crazy and mean and ugly - people in cahoots with the devil.
But things changed, Pastoureau says, in the 18th century. During the American and French Revolutions - as newly invented national flags like the Stars and Stripes and the Tricolour suggest - stripes came to be associated with life and liberty and the era's emerging egalitarian ideals. Stripes started getting happy and breezy. In the 19th century, with the growth of huge oppressive cities and the spread of industrialism, stripes came to symbolise - even more broadly - cleanliness, nature, physical activity and the open air. By 1900 the devil seemed to have been forgotten: stripes made people feel healthy, free and safe. Today, Pastoureau suggests, we continue to wear such 'good' stripes to protect us from bad and frightening things:
We still wear striped shirts and underwear; we use striped bath and hand towels; we sleep under striped sheets. The canvas on our mattresses has remained striped. Is it going too far to think that those pastel stripes that touch our bodies not only respond to our worries about keeping clean but also play the role of protecting us? Protecting the body against dirt and pollution, against external attacks, but protecting it also from our own desires, from our irresistible appetite for impurity?
Yeah yeah, as they say in New York. It's a week later now and I still can't make up my mind if any of it matters - or will matter for very long. There are stripes everywhere, of course: Old Glory and bunting all over the streets, big sad flags draping down from windows, little bristly plastic ones sticking up from people's car antennas. I live in a gay neighbourhood (near the Castro) and the dykes and queers turn out to be pretty patriotic. (We're all proud of Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player from San Francisco who helped crash Flight 93 into the ground.) Every few hours I talk to my lover Blakey in Chicago. She lives in a big high-rise off Lake Shore Drive - we don't know when we'll see each other again. At night I crawl into bed with my little dog Charlemagne, rescued from the pound just last month, and he burrows down under the sheets to my feet. I feel like an effigy. Sirens go off outside; a lonely plane goes by. I've been wearing my usual old striped T-shirt to sleep in, but it feels pretty fucking useless.
India is no stranger to terrorism. But the terrorism that India has had to face for some decades can by no means be connected only to Islam; and in almost every case the ruling government has played a part in causing and even nurturing the phenomenon. If we look at the story of Sikh extremism in the 1980s in Punjab, we find it has an eerie resonance with the events that took place in Washington and New York.
For Mrs Gandhi, the Congress Party - a euphemism for herself and her family - represented democracy, stability and secularism; and, in order to perpetuate Congress rule, she used every undemocratic means at her disposal. She tampered with India's federal structure, and made destabilising non-Congress state governments something of a bad habit; the damaging effects this has had on Indian democracy are evident today. Her deadliest intervention was the sponsoring of a Sikh fundamentalist in Punjab, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Akali Dal, a regional party with a strong Sikh identity, was posing a threat to the Congress. Mrs Gandhi's son Sanjay decided the best way to counter this was by cynically promoting Bhindranwale - a figure who was violently assertive in his religious and regional identity. Unfortunately, Bhindranwale turned against Mrs Gandhi to preside over a militant secessionist movement. The consequences are well known: the military attack on the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale was hiding, the death of Bhindranwale, the killing later, in retaliation, of Mrs Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and, in the aftermath, the murder in Delhi of innocent Sikhs by Congress-led hoodlums.
Like Mrs Gandhi in India, America has been a great, self-appointed proponent of democracy in the modern world, while, in actuality, it has treated it as a nuisance and an obstruction when it gets in the way of its self-interest. It now justifies war by speaking of the 'will of the people', but the will of the people in Palestine has, for decades, meant little more than the rubble of Palestine. In order to root out Communism from Afghanistan, it armed a religious extremist group; and created, in effect, a Bhindranwale. For years, America's foreign policy, like Mrs Gandhi's domestic policy, has been concerned solely with extending its own sphere of influence, whatever the cost. Only the American public can put pressure on, and change, that aberrant policy: but the American public's main source of information about its country's foreign policy is Hollywood with its images of terror and frightening rhetoric of 'good' and 'evil'.
It is one thing to believe without knowing, quite another to know without believing. Never have world-shattering events been so relentlessly documented, the evidence of testimony converging with the hideous evidence of things. Yet I still cannot at some level believe what I have seen and heard about the events of 11 September. One of the incongruities at which my slow-moving mind balks is the combination of two forms of life that Max Weber taught us were immiscible: the symbolic-religious and the calculating-rational. Obviously, those who carried out the attacks on 11 September practised both, and simultaneously. It took painstaking planning, meshed co-ordination of people and objects, and a strategic eye for opportunities. This is means-end rationality with a vengeance. It also took a steely commitment to an ideal powerful enough to motivate suicide and mass murder. We don't yet know which ideal was here so bloodily served, and whether it was strictly religious. People have been known to blow up themselves and innocent bystanders in the cause of anarchism or nationalism. But all powerful ideals, religious or secular, hold followers in thrall through symbols and values. If the symbolic had not been trump, the pilots of the hijacked planes would have aimed straight for a nuclear power plant, with which they could have wreaked still more horror. So the terrorists also inhabited the realm of what Weber called the rationality of values, and not in the compartmentalised way the rest of us balance these two ways of ordering our lives. During World War Two, the intellectual challenge went out to physicists and chemists, mathematicians and engineers to solve technical problems of enormous complexity. If there really is to be something like a war on terrorism, then the new challenge seems to be addressed to anthropologists and historians, sociologists and theologians, students of the symbolic rather than the technical.
LRB 4 October 2001 | PDF Download