Shrouded in darkness

“Ruth McCourt and her [four-year-old] daughter Juliana, from Connecticut, were aboard one of the planes which crashed into the World Trade Center. Anybody who has ever sat in a plane alongside a young child, who has felt the half nervous, half excited grip of a small clammy hand as the plane takes off, will be able to guess the anguish of that mother as the hijackers took over and steered towards New York.” It was thus that Fergal Keane, writing in The Independent of 15 September, tried to capture one of the more horrifying images of last Tuesday’s carnage. It was more horrifying, perhaps, than the images of those planes slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, causing the massive toll of death, injury and destruction that has overwhelmed the whole world in the past week.

For the men who took over Ruth McCourt’s and three other planes, transforming them into human missiles, the WTC towers and the Pentagon were targets, the death and suffering resulting from their destruction abstract: “collateral damage” justified by political expediency (anything familiar about this?). But what of the people on board these planes? Nothing abstract here: faces, human faces of horribly frightened children, women and men. Were they informed of their fate? One can only hope that, at the very least, they were spared that bit of monstrous information until the very last instant. Most of us are familiar with pain and loss; but, in its very finality, death is virtually impossible to grasp mentally.

During the past week, possibly millions of people in the US and throughout the world were doing what Keane tried to do: to capture, through their mind’s eyes, the victims as people (like you and me) and not merely as numbers on a body count. It’s called empathy: an innate capacity that makes us worthy of the self- designation “human.”

A father and his 12-year-old boy are out on an exciting adventure: they’re buying a new family car. They’re no longer just father and son; today, they’re also buddies. Together, they inspect the potential purchase, compare and discuss relative merits and price ranges. What pride the little boy must feel as he helps his father reach a decision. And one can only imagine his thrill — as he grips his father’s hand on their way home — at the prospect of describing the new car to his mother and siblings, hinting, not so subtly, at the important role he played in picking it.

He will not be allowed to do so. For close to an hour, Israeli snipers — out to teach the Palestinian people a lesson in submission — turn the boy and his father into targets in a turkey shoot.

The boy’s name was Mohamed Al-Dorra, and, like four-year-old Juliana, he was brutally and heartlessly murdered, a little under a year ago. Keane may or may not have been able “to guess at the anguish” of a father who, for close to an hour, found himself hopelessly unable to protect his son from horrible fear, pain and finally, death; I and millions of others in this part of the world were. How many tears were shed or candles lit — in Britain, the US or Germany — for Mohamed Al-Dorra and the thousands of other Palestinian children killed or maimed during the past year alone? Where was the sense of horror when Mrs Albright, responding to a question about the 500,000 children that have died in Iraq as a result of US-imposed sanctions, gruesomely stated that “the cost, we think, was worth it”? British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s personal assistant for foreign affairs, Robert Cooper, cynically tells us: “We need to get used to the idea of double standards.” Sorry, Mr Cooper; you may do so, but we can’t. Your advice simply flies in the face of human nature.

And now America is at war. “We will smoke them out of their holes. Those who make war on the United States have chosen their own destruction,” President George W Bush said as he declared “a momentous battle of good against evil.” The sense of unreality is now complete, as if the giant plumes of smoke that billowed from the twin towers of the World Trade Center have covered the whole world in a shroud of insanity. Watching CNN during the past week, hearing and reading the statements of Western government leaders, commentators and the editorial outpourings of anchors and presenters, one feels stupefied. The graphic horror of witnessing two of the tallest buildings in the world collapsing, killing thousands before our very eyes, is only part of the plunge through a nefarious looking glass that Louis Carrol never dreamt of. The most powerful country in the world is devastated; the world economy sent reeling, not by a massive “first strike,” but by no more than 19 individuals wielding “knife-like” instruments, US civilian aircraft and enormous desperation.

The dreaded World War III is upon us — but where is the enemy? Afghanistan? A network of some 4,000 terrorists distributed across the globe, according to a recent Congressional report on Osama Bin Laden’s organisation?

We are to look forward to a fierce and long war, a giant crusade, launched by “the free world,” the “civilised world” — a decisive battle of “good against evil,” “light against darkness”. The rhetoric is even more unreal than the visible images of death and destruction.

Is this a time warp, one that keeps hurtling us from the Cold War to the Middle Ages and then back to the colonial world of the 19th century? Or is it, rather, a descent into a world that never existed, a world of reality parodying fiction parodying reality — not Carrol’s relatively benign Wonderland, but the land of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Tony Blair, after all, would make a plausible, if overzealous, Hobbit).

The insanity is real, though. War drums are beating, troops are being deployed and war plans have already been drawn up. How much “collateral damage” are we to expect as the world’s superpower and its allies deploy their “sophisticated toys” to hunt down Bin Laden and his alleged followers? This hunt, news reports tell us, may include Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan, besides Afghanistan.

The foreign affairs spokesman of the Conservative party, in a special session of the British parliament earlier this week, quoted (or rather, misquoted) Chairman Mao as having said that the terrorist is like a fish swimming in a sea of people. His conclusion: “The challenge facing us today is to dry up the sea.” The ravings of a genocidal maniac? An overzealous attempt by a leading member of the British opposition to outbid his counterparts on the opposite side of the house in expressing London’s undying servility to Washington?

Not quite. Elaborating on the strategy of the forthcoming war, Paul Wolfowitz, US deputy secretary of defence, said it would involve “removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, and ending states who [sic] sponsor terrorism.”

Whether Bin Laden and his supposed network of 4,000 militants were responsible for last Tuesday’s outrage or not, we can be sure that many more of them will be created during the coming weeks, courtesy of a war designed to “end states” and “dry up seas of people.” And they will find in the carnage of New York and Washington inspiration for their own brand of vengeance.

Ninety per cent of Americans, we are told, support Bush’s “momentous battle against evil.” How many thousands of Afghanis, Iraqis, Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims dead and maimed will it take, one wonders, before 90 per cent of the peoples of our part of the world come to support Bin Laden’s no less “momentous battle against evil”?

Just two weeks ago I was in South Africa for the World Conference Against Racism. There, at the WCAR’s NGO Forum, I witnessed people of all colours, religions and cultural backgrounds charting a common path of human emancipation. “The people united will never be defeated,” they chanted. It now seems like a distant memory. I cling to it, nevertheless, for I (and I hope many others) will have no truck with this stupid and abhorrent War of the Races.

A world in which our choices are limited to Bush and Bin Laden is a damned and doomed world of madness.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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