Nov 8, 2009

Questioning every answer

I know that tomorrow there will be more deaths and more so the day after, but that is not the reason I hold back my tears. I fear I am unable to cry

By Waqqas Mir

I, as an individual, am always contented as long as I can feel a distinct unease about myself. It lets me know that I am sane and still thinking. I value melancholy as it allows me to lament many things. Times are ripe for lamenting, I believe. As my favorite fictional lawyer, Alan Shore, says, “there was a time when melancholy was a quality you could be proud of, with people such as Abraham Lincoln and Lord Byron. Now you are expected to smile at people and say things like 'great!'".

For most of my life I have lamented the loss of decency and tolerance among people, chiefly myself. Maybe this is an extension of the same. This piece is not meant to answer many questions, if any at all. Answers more often than not are believed to settle and conclude debates, rather than generate them. I believe this is especially true in our culture where we are averse to questioning every answer.

I want to write because I want to generate a debate. This silence is deafening. I hope that those among you who while away their time reading this will debate and argue over some of the issues I plan to touch upon. I side with Amartya Sen when he classifies argumentation as a wonderful thing. Argumentation is not always pleasant and if it is meant to be fruitful, it doesn't always have to be pleasant. We need to have conversations that make us uncomfortable. Here, I begin one.

October has been a particularly bloody month. 200 people have perished already in terrorism related violence. And yet, as the best and the worst among us would say, 'life goes on'. But does it really? In all this violence and the fear that it has imported into our lives we have lost many things. Chief among them is probably our humanity. I often wonder if we will regain it. To the dead I have this to say: I wish I had known you. Maybe it would help me or allow me to cry harder, or maybe cry at all when you perished. I wish I had enough humanity left in me to bawl my eyes out and be debilitated with grief, if only for a few hours.

I know that tomorrow there will be more deaths and more so the day after, but that is not the reason I hold back my tears. I fear I am unable to cry. Adam Smith, in his book 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments', says that sympathy is largely imagination. We can never feel what others feel, we can merely try to imagine it. Is imagination then another casualty of our times? I do not find myself or others holding back tears each time there are innocent deaths in our midst. What is it inside so many of us that has brought us this inexplicable lack of feeling; we shrug and say "well, that is life in today's Pakistan. What is next on today's work agenda?"

Disappointment we do feel, yes. But how many of us feel grief, genuine grief? The dead watched this home of ours wilt away and now they are gone. The eyes that lit up at their sight will never do so again. We do not mourn this enough. We have forgotten how to mourn and I lament that. Vigils although common at first now do not honour the often nameless and faceless who sacrifice their lives for us, such as the janitor at Islamic University who tried stopping the bomber or the motorway cop who didn't shirk from his duties at 3am only to be killed in the ensuing explosion.

To the living, including myself, I pose this question: have we mourned enough? Is this it? Why is the bravado about your freedom or my freedom greater than the mourning for what we have lost? Many of us may say 'the terrorists cannot take away our freedom'. But they so nearly have. In ways that we do not realise yet. However, that freedom can be regained. It is the freedom to feel, to grieve and to mourn.

Quite often people say that the worst thing about terrorism is that it infuses fear in peoples' lives. True, but is this the whole truth? Having lived in Pakistan these last 3 years I vehemently disagree. I think the worst thing about terrorism is that it de-sensitises you; to the loss of innocent life and to violence. Each time you shrug your shoulders and say "well, that is life", each time you turn away while the deaths are listed you are failing to mourn. The worst thing about terrorism in today's Pakistan is the collective loss of our ability to grieve, and more importantly the collective loss of our innocence. We have forgotten how to mourn. We get angry but we do not mourn. Not at the collective level.

Thanks to terrorism-related violence, the stranger we meet in the street, on the bus or outside the mosque is not innocent anymore. I am not saying that it is unnatural to be suspicious; of course in these times it is a rather normal reaction. But what we can do is acknowledge and realize that we are losing our innocence and a belief in the innocence of others. Maybe, just maybe, that will help us salvage some humanity. For when this is all over and the body counts are done and we start re-building then God knows we will need enormous reserves of humanity to build up this society again. Right now those reserves are diminishing. That alone is reason enough to salvage our diminishing faith in basic human goodness and the presumption of innocence.

The loss of innocence affects not just us but also the suspects, especially those suspected on account of ethnicity or appearance. New laws are being debated and promulgated that provide for elongated periods of detention without trial. Scores are being rounded up throughout the country. And most police officials that you will speak to cannot guarantee that those people will ever see trial, let alone a fair one. Oh, and they are not being released. They grace 'unknown locations' at the pleasure of the powers that be.

The irony is that most of us were enraged when that giant of legal scholarship at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz, wrote of torture warrants. And today, here and now, in our home we look away and do not question the State's practices of arrest and detention. The State failed us earlier by acting as a patron to violent elements and now the State is hitting back hard.

Only this time our silence makes us accomplices. Lack of documentation regarding identity will mean punishment much worse than the one deserved by an illegal immigrant. The libertarians and the rights activists among us are silent as people are being detained for months on end. It is not uncommon to hear "why don't we just throw these Afghans out?" And yet even though we are prisoners to xenophobia our analysts will classify the right-wing politicians of the US, Europe and Australia as racist.

This is all adding up to our loss of humanity and our loss of innocence as a people. It is also a loss of awareness. Call me insane if you will but a Gitmo like facility isn't exactly incompatible with our silence right now. Adam Smith's 'impartial spectator' would put us to great shame, if we have any left. Shame, too, presumes humanity.

So, is this it then? Have we admitted that the greater the perception of threat the more ferocious the response? Proportionality of the response is another casualty then. Are we going to replace presumption of innocence with that of guilt? The video that showed Army officers torturing people generated some hue and cry but where are the giants from the media and the intelligentsia demanding explanations? Transparency was never one of our virtues; it might just be another irretrievable loss. We blame the USA and resent it its greatness as a country but it is great because a wave of people and lawyers had the intestinal fortitude to rise against Gitmo. They questioned it at every forum and every few months the judges from the District level to those at the Supreme Court listened and affirmed the arguments of rights activists. The battle wages on but at least they generated noise. America has many faults but the Americans make sure that the whole world knows of those faults, regardless of action. There is virtue in acceptance. Let us begin by taking that route too, individually as well as collectively.

We speak of winning hearts and minds and yet the media and our politicians call it a war. Off the top of my head, wouldn't "struggle" be a more apt word? No, I do not mean to use it in the Wahabi-jihadi sense. But we must not forget that wars are waged by armies, regardless of countless generals barking, "No, son. Nations fight wars." Struggle implies something collective. An effort on the part of all of us; to regain what we have lost, to salvage what we have and to re-build whatever we can in the future for our children and children's children. For me this is a struggle against ignorance and violence. A struggle against the loss of feeling. Against apathy. It will need guns and bullets in some measure but our ultimate and eventual triumph lies in preserving argument and evidence over assertion and aggression. In the words of Elie Wiesel we must say, in one voice, "never again".

Yesterday morning, I was jolted by a piece of poetry penned by Zehra Nigah. Poets are amazingly sensitive people. In a country where millions fire abuses at the brain-washed suicide bombers, she found it in her heart to pity him. It is a tribute to the spirit of compassion that we humans can generate at times. There is hope yet. She writes:

Reports have come that his head was found, a half opened eye in which a dream was entangled… Immersed in blood a dream of paradise (where) Virgin, pretty Houries are waiting.

That is sympathy in the Smithian sense. Imagination and mourning, at the loss of a life and what that life destroyed through ignorance. And the sense of mourning persists as she writes of a school girl in Swat:

My papers, pens and inkpots… All have been defaced along with my family members, I come here every day,

In the bag of my memories I look for my previous lessons, A paper of dust on which I write And then I come back.

We have it within us to be cognizant of all that is being destroyed in today's Pakistan, not just our life-styles but the dreams and ideals of many. Let us not be ignorant. I confess, each time a bearded young man whizzes past me on a bike, I tense up and often notice the same reaction around me. In the past few months, I have become a changed man. Each time I suspect someone, I lose a little bit more of my humanity. I hope that as a nation we come out of this struggle while keeping intact our most precious reserve: our humanity. I hope I can pause in my day each time there is a suicide bombing and I can mourn the deaths, no matter how hard I have to try.

But do we have it in us to be out on the streets for the liberty of those detained for months merely because they look/act suspicious? I cannot say yes and that is surely something to lament for now. Can we even see any more the lines that we have crossed? As Arundhati Roy says, "Once you see a line, you can't un-see it" so then are we planning on erasing some of those lines? Will our kids ever see them re-drawn and how will they judge us? Have we forgotten how to mourn? Can we find it in our suspicious and cynical selves to mourn and grieve yet not fall prey to xenophobia? Well, I never promised you answers.

For now, a bunch of 16 year olds are calling me to join them for a debate after my work hours. They will skirt around the barriers in Islamabad, the city under siege, and gather to debate and argue late into the night. They are more fearless and human than I am, more innocent too. And so is my 6 year old nephew who thinks that the violence-sponsored school closure is actually his winter-break. If for nothing else, this debate is worth it for keeping intact their humanity. That, I feel, would be our most enduring victory.

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